28 May 2011

Wartime art trade between Caracas, Venezuela, and New York

In September 1944, the Navy Censorship office in New York notified William Burke, of the Frick Art Reference Library, that a group of 30 paintings coming through Caracas, Venezuela, had been offered for sale to an art dealer in New York.

At first blush, the list consisted of a high-powered compendium of major European Old Masters (Tintoretto, El Greco, Tiepolo, Rubens, Annibale Carracci) and a handful of 19th century masters (Lawrence and Manet chief among them).

A second look at the list would make anyone wonder if these paintings were for real or not owing to their valuations. On the low end you could get a “Landscape” by Albert Cuyp for 375 pounds sterling. On the high end, El Greco’s “Virgin Mourning the death of Christ,” would cost you a hefty 22,000 pounds sterling.

An expert with the Roberts Commission evaluated the list and his conclusions have withstood the test of time: the paintings were either copies of originals hanging in museums, or they were misattributed, or else they came from obscure, heretofore unknown collections, because many of them could not be located in the extant art-historical literature. For those he could find, the originals were in established European collections.

The main concern at Navy Censorship and the Roberts Commission was that, for those paintings valued in excess of 5000 US dollars, a special permit would have to be obtained through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in order for the works to enter the United States legally. This import restriction had been put into place in the early days of the Second World War to allow the US government through its Customs Bureaus to vet incoming items for any sign of suspicious origin (read, looted).

This September 1944 Navy Censorship document typified the nature of raw information streaming into wartime New York and Washington.  Its use value could be viewed as marginal due to the lack of information that it contained on the works themselves--no sign of previous ownership, unknown consignor in Caracas. But, when confronted with a later piece of intelligence, the Frick document began to make more sense.

On November 25, 1944, the US Office of Censorship intercepted a telephone conversation between Jose Acquavella in Caracas and Nicolas Acquavella, an established art dealer on 57th Street in New York.

Conversation between Nicolas Acquavella (New York) and Jose Acquavella (Caracas)
Source: NARA
During that conversation, Jose and Nicolas expressed anger over news reports that the paintings sold by their New York gallery were copies of originals hanging in the Louvre in Paris. Although most probably true, the clincher to the story is that one of Nicolas Acquavella’s clients, Manuel J. Santaella, a Venezuelan politician, had expressed interest in a painting by Rubens which Nicolas Acquavella was selling for about $10,000. However, the painting was located in Caracas under the care of Jose Acquavella. Coincidence? One of the paintings on the September 1944 Navy Censorship list was by Rubens and titled, “The Adoration of the Magi,” at a value of 15,000 pounds sterling.

Although the two American intelligence documents may not be directly connected, the coincidences force us to consider that there is a relationship between the September 1944 reporting of the list of 30 paintings coming through Caracas and the late November 1944 conversation between the Acquavellas.

Many plundered families in Europe of middle-class origin had acquired copies of works produced by known and lesser-known artists in part as a status symbol, in part as a way of expressing cultural preferences, in part because these works were far more affordable than the originals. Those works, together with victims' household goods, were summarily confiscated by Nazi authorities and sold at auction across Nazi-occupied Europe.

The fact that 30 paintings, even if all were copies, were being offered for sale to a gallery in New York via Caracas, was a good illustration of the extent of wartime trade in works of art coming from Europe, regardless of their pedigree and museum-worthiness. As we have seen time and time again, good copies of original masterpieces were never frowned upon by museums, as witnessed in Buenos Aires.  Thus, the trail of missing works coming from Europe could actually lead us either to a Latin American museum or to the lower-tiered art market in New York.