07 January 2022

Duress revisited

by Marc Masurovsky

Duress should be a no-brainer. It’s a tangible manifestation of State-sponsored persecution and marginalization exercised against a specific group of individuals, namely the Jews in Nazi Germany. A forced sale is not conceivable without duress. It is the duress environment that makes the sale of Jewish-owned property an inevitability and a logical outcome of a Jew’s loss of prerogative in making day-to-day decisions that affects her life and her future and that of her family. Although duress is not a difficult concept to grasp, it is characterized by a loss of individual freedom in making practical and existential decisions and loss of control over one’s resources and property fueled by an oppressive regime which extolled the racial inferiority of an entire group of people (the Jews) as a basis for using all the necessary levers of State power to oppress and marginalize them. Duress foreshadows the Holocaust.

Here are some examples of duress which were highlighted during restitution proceedings over the past decade or so.

Max Stern, Düsseldorf
Max Stern

In December 2007, in a case that pitted the heirs of Max Stern, a Jewish gallery owner based in Düsseldorf, against Maria-Louise Bissonnette, a resident of Providence (Rhode Island), US District Judge Mary Lisi ruled in favor of the late Max Stern’s estate with a landmark judgment in which she equated forced sales with looting and an act of theft. She justified her decision in part on the fact that Max Stern had never received any compensation for the 1937 forced sale of his gallery’s inventory, including a painting by Xaver Winterhalter which Ms. Bissonnette had acquired. In Max Stern’s case, the duress began as soon as he received an official notification from the Nazi-sponsored Reich Chamber of Fine Arts shortly after he had inherited his father’s gallery. The Reich Chamber asserted that as a Jew he was not qualified to run such a business and he should proceed expeditiously with the liquidation of the gallery’s inventory through an approved point of sale, in this case the Lempertz auction house in Köln. Max Stern had no other choice but to proceed with the liquidation. The absence of payment was an egregious manifestation of his persecution. (See 2008sternvbissonnette)

Are price and value essential guideposts to determine whether a Jew living in Nazi Germany was subject to acts of duress? Not necessarily. In fact, if one looks solely at value and price without appreciating the importance of the socio-economic and historical context surrounding the events that produced the state of duress, one may end up deciding the fate of a contested object without giving due attention to the “why”, “how” and “when” of the sale of a claimed object.

Max Emden, Munich
Max Emden
We see this in the case of the late Max Emden, a German Jewish department store magnate. The Nazis made Emden’s life increasingly difficult as noted by the German Advisory Commission (so-called Limbach Commission) when commenting on the 1938 sale of his three Bellotto paintings to Hitler’s Linzmuseum project, a sale that was brokered by a Munich-based dealer named Anna Caspari: “[the sale] was not undertaken voluntarily but was entirely due to worsening economic hardship… deliberately exploited by potential buyers…” However, the Houston MFA where one of the Bellotto works ended up, remained unflappable. It disagreed with the Commission’s assessment noting that Emden had obtained a fair price for the three paintings.

Houston Museum of Fine Arts

By solely looking at the price realized by the sale of 1938 and ruling it as reasonable given the time period and quality of the works, Houston essentially ruled out all other facts in making its determination, therefore implicitly denying that Emden had acted out of duress. Regardless of where one stands on the Emden case—for or against restitution—the fact is that Emden had to part with much of his property before leaving Nazi Germany. The German Advisory Commission (ex-Limbach Commission) reached this conclusion based in part on the facts surrounding the forced sale. The “worsening economic hardship” that Emden experienced as the main factor prompting the forced sale had become the bane of most Jews living under Nazi rule, especially in 1938.

Fritz Grünbaum, Vienna and Dachau
Fritz Grünbaum

In the case of Fritz Grünbaum who died at Dachau in January 1941, once arrested in Vienna by the Nazis in 1938, he lost control over his property and assets, including a rather significant collection of modern works of art. Four months after his transfer to Dachau, he was forced to sign a power of attorney, thereby effectively finalizing under duress the surrender of his art collection as a direct consequence of prevailing circumstances—racially- and politically-motivated incarceration, physical and emotional abuse. (See Bakalar v. Vavra).

Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, Munich
Lilly Cassirer Neubauer

In a complaint filed against the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation in 2019, the heirs of Lilly Cassirer Neubauer argued that their great-grandmother “was forced to transfer [a painting by Camille Pissarro] to Jakob Scheidwimmer, a Nazi art appraiser [in Munich], in order to obtain exit visas for herself and her husband, Otto. Scheidwimmer transferred 900 RM [or 360 US dollars in 1939] in payment for the painting which he deposited in a blocked account as Ms. Neubauer was of Jewish descent and subject to Nazi anti-Jewish discriminatory laws since the advent of National Socialism in Germany on January 1933. 

Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation
As an art market player in Munich, Mr. Scheidwimmer was very much a part of the Nazi machinery for recycling confiscated Jewish cultural assets as attested by his direct participation in high-level meetings with local, Bavarian and Reich officials around the time of Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) during which thousands of Jewish apartments were raided and their male occupants corralled and interned into camps, in part, to force them to disgorge their assets and leave Germany. Ms. Neubauer did not stand a chance against Scheidwimmer and was forced to relinquish the Pissarro painting.

Are there different shades of duress like a palette of colored hues ranging from very light to very dark? Or is there just one universal expression of duress, plain and simple, equally applied to all Jews living in Nazi Germany at all times between 1933 and 1945? Was it less severe in some parts of Germany? How quickly did Jews feel the paralyzing and oppressive nature of Nazi rule in all its petty manifestations? Can we periodize duress? Did it wax and wane like the tides or was it always dispensed in equal amounts to all Jews in Germany, regardless of status, class, income and geographical location? The question may seem unfair but it goes to the heart of how we view duress in Nazi Germany and the forced sale of cultural assets by Jewish owners desperately seeking to flee Germany at all cost. Unfortunately for the heirs and descendants of Jewish victims of the Nazis, their detractors in museums, auction houses, and private collections nitpick to death the “quality of the duress” that their families experienced as if to find a flaw in their argument, implying that they might be exaggerating the circumstances under which their ancestors sold works of art. This debasement of the experience of Jewish families in Nazi Germany has led to restitution claims being denied, thus allowing current possessors to retain the object(s) in their collection. The unwillingness of cultural officials to accept and acknowledge the circumstances of a family’s duress under Nazi rule is tantamount to revisionist and constitutes an implicit recasting of the Jewish experience under Nazi rule.

We have seen this scenario unfold many times since 1945.

It is essential to study and compare all forms of duress sustained under oppressive regimes like that foisted by the Nazis on the citizens of Germany and later on most of Europe. We need to deduce, outline, define and publicize the complex manifestations of duress in the daily lives of Jews using witness statements, contemporaneous reports, legal and governmental proceedings. Duress and forced sales are real phenomena that haunted Jews from the advent to power of the Nazis in Germany in late January 1933 to their forced exit from Nazified Germany with little or nothing left to their name.

05 January 2022

Is Switzerland changing the way it views Nazi looted art?

by Marc Masurovsky 

Here we are in the early days of 2022, looking back at 2021 and wondering if anything good came of it, notwithstanding the pandemic, the million plus deaths from COVID-19 alone, the repeated closures of public and private institutions, the inability to travel safely, the high-stakes gamble everyone of us faces when we go shopping, mingle in public places, take public transportation in order to escape from our confinement at home while we dodge the wily virus. It knows no borders, harbors no partisan bias and treats everyone equally without due regard to age, gender, occupation, faith and political affiliation.

What’s going on in Switzerland? 

In December 2021 alone, a number of developments have reshaped the restitution map in Switzerland as reported in the Swiss and international press. Two names have largely taken over center stage in the Nazi looted art story and the way it permeates life in Switzerland: Gurlitt and Bührle. The former has been ubiquitous since the transfer to the Kunstmuseum Bern of the estate of the late Cornelius Gurlitt who bequeathed his collection to the Bern Museum—the remnants that he had inherited from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. The estate consisted of more than 1400 works, mostly on paper, which Gurlitt, Sr., had amassed throughout the Nazi era and in the immediate postwar years (he died in 1956). Gurlitt, Jr., gradually dissipated its contents as his sole source of income with which he eased himself into old age.
Kunstmuseum Bern
Cornelius Gurlitt
Since 2014, the Kunstmuseum Bern has weathered international criticism over its acceptance of the Gurlitt estate. Could it have turned down the bequest? The Gurlitt collection, it must be said, has been a toxic affair from the get-go as Bern has had to learn to coexist with the indelible Nazi taint that accompanied the works. Its only way out was to take the bull by the horns and to make a conscious and very public attempt at researching the origins of each work—an exercise in due diligence, something we expect from any museum, large or small. Even more frightening was the possibility that tainted items had to be restituted, something that Swiss museums have been loath to do since the late 1940s, with few notable exceptions, using the stale but highly effective of “good faith” to justify the non-return of loot. 

Emil Georg Bührle
December 2021 has turned out to be a very busy month in the Swiss world of museums and art restitution. First off, a Social Democratic lawmaker, Jon Pult, introduced a parliamentary motion to establish an independent commission in Switzerland that would make recommendations on Nazi-era claims. A cross between the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel and France’s CIVS with a smidgeon of Austria’s Provenance Research Commission. This motion was prompted (the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back) following the news that the Kunsthaus Zurich had agreed to put on display 203 works from the collection of Emil Georg Bührle, a Swiss arms manufacturer who owed his fortune to his wartime dealings with the Axis powers and who frolicked on the international looted art market, buying up choice pieces confiscated from Jewish dealers in Western Europe. 

Kunsthaus Zurich
Several days after the announcement of Pult’s motion, the Zurich museum garnered headlines which should have prompted its director to hit the schnapps bottle. The Bührle incident triggered an international storm of disapproval and at least one Swiss Jewish artist demanded that her works be removed from the museum. Once the winds subsided, the museum ordered a group of experts to look into the wartime history of the paintings in Bührle’s collection. The kind of effort that had already been conducted in part or in whole by numerous researchers over the past several decades, including the New York-based Commission for Art Recovery. Will their findings be shared with the Kunsthaus experts? We don’t know but we sure hope so. 

Before Xmas 2021, the Kunstmuseum Bern announced that it would part with 29 works from the Gurlitt collection with a view to returning them to the rightful owners. Will it actually restitute them? Or will the museum seek a “fair and just solution” in order to retain custody of the objects under contention? 

As we get used to the humdrum of 2022 which strikingly resembles the din of 2021, let’s hope that Bern and Zurich come to their senses and forge an irreversible path towards a more ethical treatment of their collections.

22 December 2021

Review: Alas Another Tale of French Antisemitism and Cultural Property

 By Ori Z Soltes

Among the myriad angles from which one finds an expanding literature that considers the Nazi plunder of cultural property is that which places emphasis on some of the specifics of how a given Jewish family, or series of Jewish families, had hoped and believed that they were solidly embedded within the culture and community that ultimately discarded them as eternal foreigners when the SS knocked at the national door. The Austrians famously demonstrated this ugly truth in the immediate aftermath of the March 1938 Nazi Anschluss. So, too the Vichy government: “Free France”—except to the Jewish children and adults that the government and much (not all) of its population so easily (a better word would be “eagerly”) helped deport to Auschwitz and similar destinations. Such ease and eagerness can only have resonated from a history of gut-level Jew-hatred of long duration.

James McAuley’s deeply researched and elegantly written The House of Fragile Things plunges into the expansive efforts on the part of a key group of successful Jewish families in nineteenth-century France to shape their place within French cultural identity. These efforts played out against a backdrop of relentless antisemitism and the inability of key mouthpieces for France’s sense of self to accept Jews—any Jews, regardless of what they contributed to the national ethos—as truly French, in the century since the French Revolution and its declarations of acceptance.

McAuley explores families—the Rothschilds, Ephrussis, Reinachs, Camondos, Cahen d’Anvers, et al—and the extraordinary art and artefact collections that they amassed, the opulent homes that they created as settings for those collections, and their eventual deeding of such structures and their contents to their beloved France. On the other, he recounts the commentaries by renowned and vicious critics like the Goncourt brothers and above all Edouard Drumont—the “Pope of antisemitism”—capable only of expressing contempt for these individuals whose lavish and expansive dinner parties they frequently enjoyed.

McAuley’s text is not simply focused on dueling sensibilities. He provides an astute and perceptive analysis of each Jewish family and its key figures, and reflects on how we ultimately know so little about them beyond their possessions. His account resonates with an appreciation of the paradoxes defining their interweave into a multi-colored if flawed tapestry—and the psychological issues that motivated them, whether escapism (e.g., Moïse de Camondo), profound loss (the Reinach and Camondo deaths in military service during World War I), or gender (e.g., Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild); whether rooted in the collapse of relational certainties (the sense, for Moïse de Camondo, of losing control of familial, communal, and national situations around him); or in self-inflicted disasters that provided critics with fuel for their antisemitic screeds (the Reinachs and the Panama Canal scandal or the Ephrussis and the Alfassa Affair). 

Above all, he delineates their struggle to present themselves as champions of France and the 1789 Revolution’s assertions regarding universalism—and thus of the unequivocal compatibility of being French and being Jewish—against the diverse failures of their beloved patrie to live up to those assertions. The narrative threads its way through the tapestry of fragile things to the culminating catastrophe for these and virtually every Jewish family within France and across Europe: the Holocaust.

There is double irony in the fact that in 1935, two of the major cultural donations to France—18th-century-styled villas filled with 18th-century objects, one left in his will by Moïse de Camondo and the other donated by his brother-in-law, Charles Cahen d’Anvers. First, because these gifts were immediately subject to ecstatic reviews, 

Charles Cahen d'Anvers
completely devoid of the antisemitic invective of the previous two generations regarding these very collections. Second, because in that very year, the Nuremberg Race Laws drafted by the Nazi authorities tightened the noose around the necks of Jews in Germany, and Nazism was not far from imposing itself on a largely cooperative France.

Among the many quotable lines in McAuley’s volume, one (p. 227) stands out as a concise summary of one of the story’s endings: “By March 1944…. [t]he mansion that had once hosted glittering banquets in the fin-de-siècle, with guests like Marcel Proust and the King of Serbia, now imprisoned sixty Jews”—who would shortly be sent to Drancy and thence to Auschwitz. Nor is this the only terminus: the epilogue focuses on the moving portrait painted by Renoir in 1880, of Irène Cahen d’Anvers as a beautiful little girl with exuberant light-brown hair and a wistful look in her eye—stolen by the Nazis in 1941. (Renoir, by the way, had nothing but excoriating comments to make regarding the Jewish patrons who kept him afloat—including references to their cheapness, although he received far more for this and several other Jewish family portraits than for any works before or after from any other clients).

Irène Cahen d'Anvers
The painting had belonged to Irène’s daughter, Béatrice, whom Irène had abandoned when she divorced her husband, Charles, in 1902, (it was largely a mismatch, from the bride’s and groom’s ages to their personalities, but Charles never really recovered from the shock of the separation and its concomitants). Irène also abandoned her Judaism for Catholicism. The painting of Irène as a little girl was, sadly, the only tangible connection that Béatrice had to her mother as the years moved forward after the divorce. Béatrice perished at Auschwitz and Irène—who managed to survive the war hiding in Paris—was able to assert a claim and gain possession of the painting in 1946—but in 1949 sold it to Emil G. Bührle, the notorious Swiss collector whose wealth derived largely from selling armaments to the Nazis. One might suppose that Béatrice rolled in her grave.

A dust-up emerged at the founding of HARP during an international conference held on September 4, 1997 in which the issue of how the National Gallery of Art (NGA) had allowed Bührle to be misrepresented as a virtual anti-Nazi crusader when the museum hosted his collection in a traveling exhibition in 1990. Bührle most notoriously acquired (during the war) four works plundered from another French Jewish collector, Paul Rosenberg, through Nazi connections. Rosenberg, who survived WWII, showed up at Buehrle’s doorstep to claim them—but that is another story for another day. 

McAuley’s nuanced narrative leaves the reader with a range of villains from whom to choose in the century that encompasses the Holocaust and its aftermath, the handful of heroes mostly turned to ashes, like the unique world that they shaped—except for the lush array of objects and museums left to be enjoyed by the patrie. The Western world has suffered from remarkable bouts of amnesia—both willful and simply out of ignorance—(see the previous review by this writer in HARP’s “plundered art” blog), as the decades since the Holocaust spread out and we continue to repeat the sorts of actions that brought such grief to so many in so many different ways over 80 years ago. This book adds an important chapter to the Holocaust narrative and its culture-centered subset. It plays a noteworthy part in the effort to restitute memory—that most significant feature that makes humans human

Photos courtesy of wikimedia.

06 October 2021

Review: Pauline Baer de Pérignon: The Vanished Collection

by Ori Z. Soltes 

Every time one might be inclined to suppose that the last page has been turned on the vast narrative of the Holocaust—and certainly of that chapter that deals with the Nazi plunder of cultural property—another book, and not merely another page, appears that adds another nuance or issue. 

One of the truisms of the multi-aspected genocide engineered by the Nazis is its complexity and its internal paradoxes, which magnified the characteristic of paradox that is endemic to humanity. The Nazis offered inherent contradictions between the mud-and-excrement chaos of the pre-death world that they prepared for their victims and both the carefully ordered manner in which that world operated and the spit-polish cleanliness that obsessed Hitler and his inner circle who shaped and governed it. 

One paradox resonates from the manner in which the population designated for extermination was defined—from whom property and particularly cultural artifacts were confiscated directly (for they had ceased to possess the right to own anything, according to the laws articulated in and beyond Nuremberg in 1935) or indirectly (by forced sales of art and other possessions at a fraction of their value). The same Alfred Rosenberg who would be put in charge of defining racial categories and their features (eyes, hair, nose, lips, intellect, emotion, and the like) in order to decided who would suffer which particular fate, when, and why, was subsequently charged with organizing an effective and far-reaching system of art plunder. Among the racial determinants for Jews was the clear conclusion that having a single Jewish grandparent was sufficient for one’s polluted bloodline to yield a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. 

Yet apparently—paradoxically—the Fuehrer might make exceptions if it served his needs: so the most successful art plunderer on Hitler’s behalf, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, in spite of his paternal grandmother’s having been Jewish, flourished. Hitler also gave a survival pass to his Jewish barber (who never took the opportunities he must have had to slit his master’s throat). And on the other hand, while the most concerted Nazi efforts directed toward cultural appropriation were aimed at Jews and Slavic states, survivors or their offspring and descendants (some of whom become claimants of cultural property) are sometimes not Jewish.

Pauline Baer de Perignon grew up in France as a Catholic. The engrossing book authored by this journalist, film-script writer and writing instructor began by happenstance: a passing comment from a cousin engaged in the art world, whom she hadn’t seen in years, followed by a piece of paper on which he had written down the names of a handful of works by great masters that had once belonged to her great-grandfather, and which—her cousin rather casually noted—had probably been stolen from him.

The narrative that unfolds interweaves two main issues. One is the story itself that begins to take shape: yet another case of a French collector—in this case, Jules Strauss was particularly well-known for his generous contributions to the Louvre of exquisite and suitable frames for a good number of its masterpieces—dispossessed of his cultural property; and how easily and conveniently that datum and its accompanying details were obliterated from the communal memory of the French art and culture world in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.

The other is the process through which, inch by inch, the author scaled the double territory of trying to understand what had happened to her great-grandfather’s collections—how to begin and deepen and broaden her research—and came to a deeper understanding of her own family identity and heritage.

Jules Strauss, we learn, while he directed pointed if quantitatively modest efforts to building his own art collection, devoted unique amounts of energy to providing the Louvre with frames more consistent with the paintings hung within them than had previously been the case: he innovated both the very idea of taking the framing of a painting seriously and directing serious efforts to providing the right one for a given work, subtly enhancing its appearance. Yet (to repeat) Strauss also possessed some interesting and valuable works of art—such as a small drawing by Tiepolo that ended up in the collections of the Louvre and an intriguing painting by Largillière, a Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, which ended up in the Dresden Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in former East Germany.

These works emerge in Baer de Pérignon’s narrative as a focus within what also evolves: a realization that they had not made the journey from Jules Strauss’s walls to the storage facilities of these museums along a legitimate path, but as part of the often obscure and unstraightforward process of cultural-artifact depradations in which the Nazis were so particularly skilled. Among the ironic—or galling—aspects of the Jules Strauss story was that his home, 60 Avenue Foch, also confiscated by the regime, was requisitioned by senior members of the SS specialized in black market operations and the seizure of Jewish property.

Pauline Baer de Pérignon’s own journey includes a number of interesting turns and twists as she also evolves, to become a knowledgeable and comfortable denizen of the archives in which she would eventually uncover the documentary proof that these works did not leave her great-grandfather’s possession simply because—as the director of the Dresden museum would cynically ask her during the first round of her attempts to regain that piece of her family patrimony—“perhaps Herr Strauss was happy to have sold his painting for a decent price?”

Differently—but equally important in stature and intangibility to her quest to reclaim these tangible connections to Jules and her family past—is her arrival to a point of wondering how, exactly, and why, precisely, her father and two of his first cousins converted, in 1940, to Catholicism. A whole other aspect of the world of Nazi confiscations emerged for her, regarding layered and interwoven aspects of her family—and her own—religious identity.

This last extended detail is ultimately shaped around the peculiar and willful amnesia of which, she comes to recognize, her family has been suffering during the two generations since the Holocaust had come, uprooted and destroyed so much, and gone, like a devastating typhoon. That amnesia set in, more specifically, after Jules’ widow, Pauline de Baer Pérignon’s great-grandmother, had filed several claims with her government—the French government—regarding the works of art that that government and its museum bureaucracy refused to acknowledge as having come into their possession along the illegitimate path of Nazi spoliation.

The amnesia that set in for the family, which involves its own heritage, both cultural and spiritual, and the amnesia of the French government and museum world, are part of the larger amnesia from which those who struggle in the trenches of art restitution are trying to help the Western world recover, as the decades since the Holocaust spread out and we continue, as a species, to repeat the sorts of actions that bought such grief to so many in such a range of different ways over 75 years ago. That is why this book—aside from its flowing style, compelling storyline and intriguing twists and turns—adds such an important chapter to the Holocaust narrative and its culture-centered subset. Its ultimate theme is really about restituting memory—that most significant of characteristics that makes humans human.