26 April 2011

ERR database—Georges Bernheim

Georges Bernheim was a noted gallery owner and international art expert in pre-1940 Paris. Working under the label of the ‘Galerie Georges Bernheim,’ he had exhibited works by Francis Picabia, Raoul Dufy, and many others. Don’t be fooled, though. The number of Bernheims in the Paris art world is impressive. Although they are not related to one another, people often make that mistake and think it’s one big happy family. We have Georges Bernheim, Marcel Bernheim whose galerie ‘Galerie Marcel Bernheim’ was owned by Levy-Hermannos. And let’s not forget Bernheim-Jeune. These fixtures of the bustling avant-garde pre-1940 Paris art scene all have one thing in common: their galleries, apartments, secondary homes, bank safes, storage facilities were targeted for plunder in the early months of the German occupation of France. The man behind their combined losses: Bruno Lohse, deputy chief of the ERR, whose main offices were at 54, avenue d’Iéna, in the tony section of Paris, not too far from the Arc de Triomphe.

From a forensic standpoint, the Georges Bernheim case is frustrating, to put it mildly. According to the carding system used by the ERR at the Jeu de Paume, only 5 items were processed by Lohse’s colleagues in December 1942. If we go by the three crates that contained the items belonging to Georges Bernheim (G. Bern), the number of items rises to 18 and includes furniture and early Renaissance objects. To confuse matters a bit more, Georges Bernheim’s belongings were seized two years earlier in December 1940 and placed in one of the rooms set aside at the Louvre in November 1940 to accommodate the first major incoming shipments of plunder transferred to the ERR by the German Embassy in Paris. In other words, three crates containing Georges Bernheim objects d’art sat around at the Louvre for two years before being ‘processed’ further down the road at the Jeu de Paume.

The story would not be that complex if it ended here. However, a closer look at Georges Bernheim’s inventory of stolen art which he submitted to French authorities in 1946 perplexes and daunts, providing an alarming look at the full breadth and scope of the plunder. Since the Germans had seized his gallery records, inventories, photographs, and reference books, Georges Bernheim was forced to remember what he had lost and describe each item to the best of his ability. He managed to provide detailed descriptions for about 20 paintings, including prices and measurements, no small feat. But for the vast majority, he could only identify the names of the artists and the number of works he owned for each of them and provide a generic idea of the format of the paintings.

As it turns out, the total number of works seized from Georges’ apartment and gallery exceeds 210! In other words, 18 items were inventoried at the Jeu de Paume and 200 others simply fell through the cracks. Where are they? What are they? One thing is certain: they were never returned. If Georges Bernheim’s heirs recovered anything from that ‘invisible’ lot, no one is aware of it.

Here is a list of some the artists whose works Georges Bernheim owned and were apparently not recovered:

Marc Chagall, André Derain, Jean Dufy, Raoul Dufy, Othon Friesz, Mané Katz, Per Krogh, , Adrian, Moïse Kisling, Albert Marquet Francis Picabia, Chaim Soutine.

One painting that he recovered in October 1948 was an iconic work by Giorgio de Chirico: “Two Horses”

Two Horses, Giorgio de Chirico
Source: NARA via ERR Project
(You'll note that Hermann Goering desired this painting, thanks to the H.G. marking in the top right corner)