06 April 2020

Historical continuities: Art dealers in Paris

by Marc Masurovsky

While rummaging through the papers of the Perls Galleries located at the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, I stumbled on a June 1967 listing of members of the Paris-based “Comité professionel des galeries d’art” [equivalent of the Art dealers association in New York] 24 years after the liberation of Paris in late August 1944.

If you take a close look at it, names of victims and recyclers of their confiscated works and objects co-exist in a surreal club of art dealers and gallerists who, like in a Peyton Place-like farce, know of each other’s dirty laundry but continue to do business, because, you know, business first, ethics later, justice? What’s that?

Out of 140 gallerists members of the local dealers' association in June 1967, 34 had been active during the period of German occupation. And here they are still doing business in groovy mid-1960s Paris. Why should that worry us? It all depends on the way you look at the transition from a wartime art market to a postwar art market. On the one hand, it must be somewhat galling to be conducting business amongst individuals who shrugged their shoulders when art works belonging to their Jewish acquaintances or colleagues were offered to them for sale and they did not blink at the opportunity to do so. On the other hand, the cynical ones will tell you that it’s always been like this and you need to suck it up and make your peace with it. Otherwise you won’t last and you might as well pick another occupation. And don’t count on the government to sort out the ethics of this amoral mess. 

The past two decades since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets of December 1998 have been littered with vain attempts to create change in the way that the art world conducts its business. Although the changes are hard to discern, one thing is sure: the word “provenance” is unavoidable and unmistakable and so is its evil twin, “due diligence.” That’s progress!
Source: Perls Galleries Records, Archives of American Art, Box 8, Folder “Comité professionnel des galeries d’art”

05 April 2020

Art exports from Europe to the Western Hemisphere

by Marc Masurovsky
Applications for export pases for works of art, page 1

An innocuous list of works and objects of art has been widely available for study since historical records about art looting and restitution during the Nazi era become accessible either by on-site visits to leading archives or after their digitization on the platform known as fold3.com.

The list is entitled: “Applications for export passes for works of art.” All of the works which their owners have desired to export the Western Hemisphere were acquired in or came from areas known as “enemy territory.” This moniker targeted the following countries: Austria/Vienna, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland/Netherlands, France/Paris, “unoccupied France”, Romania.

The applicants submitted their export petitions from the following places: France, Lisbon, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland. They filed their export applications between 23/1/40 and 5/5/44, the vast majority having been submitted in 1941 and 1942, and only one in 1944.

The dates at which the objects were “taken from enemy territory” ostensibly to the places from which the export applications were then filed ranged from as early as 1934 and as late as 1941.

The objects themselves are a mix of works by Old Masters and 19th century French artists.

If we do our due diligence in a professional and non-judgmental way, all of these works need to be given extra scrutiny to eliminate any suspicion that they might have been misappropriated under Nazi rule aimed at Jews and their property. Many of the applicants’ names are well-known Jewish collectors who escaped from Europe or remained in neutral territories until the Nazi/Fascist dust had settled (Paul Graupe, Sommergut, Brunschnig, Francisca Heinemann, among others). Still, it’s worth asking about the provenance of works of art removed from Nazi Germany between 1934 and 1940, from Austria as of 1938, from France as of fall of 1940, out of Romania in 1941. With regards to the Netherlands, the objects were removed in 1938. That does not necessarily mean that their ownership history is completely clean since they could have been subject to illicit displacements in Germany and transferred to the Netherlands for sale to unwitting purchasers. We simply do not know. And that’s where research comes in handy.

A number of the works have interwar provenance information that removes the cloud (a Bauchant painting acquired from Jeanne Bucher in spring of 1940, a Bonnard acquired from the artist in 1940). But, as in the case of Paul Graupe while he was still in charge of an auction house in Berlin in 1935, one should be cautious because he did sell confiscated Jewish property. Therefore, a “Madonna with Child” attributed to Cima de Conegliano which Walter Wolf acquired from him in 1935 should be screened further. What about a Matisse painting acquired by André Weill “from Vollard” in May 1940? Vollard had died unexpectedly on the eve of World War II, and Martin Fabiani and Etienne Bignou, two notorious figures of the soon-to-be illegal art trade in German-occupied France, had imposed themselves as co-executors of the massive estate left by Ambroise Vollard? Should this object be reassessed based on the turbulent history surrounding the estate?

Even if all of these works ultimately pass the “plunder smell test”, we should keep in mind that the Roberts Commission and its tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, art historians and curators from distinguished American museums, did not have much information to go by when assessing the origins of these works before or after they entered the United States, except for the fact that they were the property of mostly well-established Jewish collectors in Europe who were fleeing for their lives from the neutral countries which they were able to reach.

When faced with such lists, don’t just dismiss them and assume that everything is fine. Do not give them the benefit of the doubt. The snapshot of the objects' trajectory that this 22-page list encapsulates becomes part of the object’s provenance or history in time and space and should be recorded as such.

Applications for export passes for works of art, page 2
Duly noted.

09 January 2020

What happened to the collection of Edouard Esmond?

by Marc Masurovsky

[This is the fourth in a series of articles on the fate of Jewish-owned collections confiscated by the ERR in France and their treatment at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex up to July 1943.]

Edouard Esmond was married to Valentine Deutsch de laMeurthe, closely linked to the Rothschild family. A British-born dandy and socialite living in Paris, Esmond was better known as a breeder of thoroughbred horses, and a golf enthusiast who founded the EsmondCup which he named after himself and his three daughters, also golf pros in their own right. As a matter of fact, Diane Esmond, one of his three daughters, won the Girls’ Golf Championship in 1926 at the age of 16!

The Esmonds lived at 54, avenue d’Iéna, in Paris, one of the most exclusive avenues on the right bank of Paris which feeds into the Place de l’Etoile where stands the “Arc de Triomphe.” Their immediate neighbor (52, avenue d’Iéna) was a colorful man by the name of Calouste Gulbenkian, Armenian-born oil tycoon and consummate art collector, who made his bed with the Germans in the early years of the German occupation of France before fleeing south due to his anglophile tendencies; he ended up in Portugal in late 1942 with the thousands of objects he collected that he was able to spirit out of German-occupied France.

Diane Esmond was born in 1910. Her passion, aside from golf,was art. While in Paris, she trained as a painter with Edouard MacAvoy and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. MacAvoy’s father was a banker and his mother descended from Huguenot nobility. Esmond developed a small following, worked closely with creative artists in the performing arts, and designed stage sets among other things. Pending further research, there are no indications that Esmond’s works were exhibited in galleries in Paris, either in group or solo shows.
Diane Esmond, n.d.

In 1940, the Esmonds fled Paris like so many others. Edouard Esmond died in 1945 and Diane returned to France in 1952. She enjoyed a resurgence as an artist and exhibited in a number of well-known venues in Paris and New York through the 50s and 60s. She died in France in 1981.

The Esmonds had the misfortune of living in a building—54, avenue d’Iéna—which the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) requisitioned to house its French headquartes. All residents of the building-mostly Jewish-had their apartments seized and emptied.

Dr. Wunder, a senior official of the ERR, the main Nazi plundering agency, stationed in Paris through 1943, led a raid on the Esmond residence and removed a large part of the Esmond art collection on June 5, 1941. At some point after their arrival, 13 of the 43 works were registered on ERR cards, 1 of which ended up on the “condemned”/vernichtet list. There is no explanation for why the rest of the Esmond items were not carded. Fifteen months later, on September 7, 1942, Dr. Tomforde, one of the ERR’s art specialists at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex, inventoried 43 objects from the Esmond collection. Based on the Esmond family’s postwar restitution claim, we know that 12 paintings by 18th and 19th century artists were also removed from the family apartment. They included works by Oudry and Sir Alfred Munnings. The question is: who took them and where did they go? They definitely did not get processed at the Jeu de Paume. 
A page from the ESM inventory,
 Bundesarchiv, B323/270, Koblenz

All told, 55 works and objects of art were removed from the Esmond residence during the war. 47 were paintings (43 by Diane Esmond). 30 werecondemned—declared “vernichtet”—all of them works by Diane Esmond. 14 of the 43 paintings were photographed after their arrival at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex, 7 of which ended up being stamped “vernichtet.” This gives us an opportunity to compare the works which were spared and those which were condemned in an attempt to understand the Nazi cultural standards used to select or condemn works of art confiscated from Jewish owners. The photographs were most likely taken shortly after their arrival at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex.

Let’s now try to divine the esthetic choices made by Dr. Tomforde.

The following works by Diane Esmond for which we have photographs were marked “vernichtet”. All of the photographs show the works on an easel, no effort being made to conceal the presence of the easel’s stand from the visual field:

ESM 5: Profile of a woman wearing a hat and a flower 

ESM 6: A still life with grapes. The photo of this painting features the easel on which it was placed.

ESM 19: A painter and his palette at work on a canvas.

ESM 20: Portrait of a “negro child”.

ESM 23: A woman wearing a white blouse. Painting on an easel..

ESM 26: A green landscape—perhaps leaning towards abstraction? The painting is on an easel.

ESM 27: A cabaret scene. Painting on easel

The following seven paintings by Esmond were spared and for which we have photographs. These photos have been cropped to conceal the presence of the easel:

ESM 18: Full-length portrait of a naked woman seen from behind.

ESM 24: A woman playing cards.

ESM 25: A woman with a monkey—however we can’t see the monkey; she is seated inside a well-appointed but cluttered living room staring into space.

ESM 28: A clown, seated on the ground, looking forlorn.

ESM 29: Men at a bar

ESM 30: A scene at the ballet

ESM 31: A clothed man viewed from behind.

What were the underlying Nazi cultural and esthetic standards that drove this apparently capricious selection? What explains the purge of Diane Esmond’s works?

Are we to assume that the selection [Selektion] which took place at the Jeu de Paume was an exercise in curatorial abuse? The only hint of Nazi ideology at work—in the form of racist tropes-could refer to ESM 5, ESM 20 and ESM 23, which portray individuals with “non-European” facial characteristics. In Nazi terms, they were not “Aryan.” However, it’s impossible to understand why a still life with grapes, a painting at work in his studio and a landscape could be assigned the “vernichtet” label while a scene of a woman playing cards, men at a bar, and a clown could be spared from destruction.

Your guess is as good as mine, but I would venture that the selection had little or nothing to do with Nazi cultural dogma, with the possible exception of the three works mentioned above.

Sources: the photographs come from Bundesarchiv, B323/853, in Koblenz, Germany.

08 January 2020

The fate of the collection of Alexandra Pregel, aka Avxente

Alexandra Pregel. 
by Marc Masurovsky

[This is the third installment of the series on the alleged destruction of works of art at the Jeu de Paume in wartime Paris by agents of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).]

The Auxente/Pregel collection (tagged as AUX by the ERR) consisted largely of works of art produced by a Finnish-born Jewish artist named Alexandra Pregel whose parents were Russian and lived in Helsinki. Ms. Pregel and her parents moved to Paris to feel from Czarist Russia. There, she studied art and began to show her works as of 1932-3, according to Dr. Gauchman, one of the leading experts on Alexandra Pregel’s work. She worked with such luminaries of the exiled Russian avant-garde community as Natalia Gontcharova. Her father had been a minister in the short-lived Kerensky government in 1917-1918. In his honor, she signed her works as Avxente, a contracted form of her patronymic surname, Avkensetev. The Nazis mis-transcribed her name as Auxente, which explains why her confiscated works are inventoried under that name. She took the Pregel name after marrying Boris Pregel in 1937 in Paris. He was a scientist interested in radio-activity. After her marriage, she signed her watercolors and paintings as Pregel.

The Pregels fled to New York in 1940 in advance of the German invasion of Western Europe. Their apartment which also served as Alexandra’s studio at 18, rue Auguste Vacquerie, in the tony 16th arrondissement of Paris. At some point on or before April 2, 1942, the Pregel residence was visited by Nazi agents belonging to the Dienststelle Westen (DW), under Kurt von Behr’s leadership, an off-shoot of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the main plundering agency in territories occupied by the Nazis. The DW had been established in early 1942 for the specific purpose of emptying out Jewish-owned or controlled residences in the Paris region, and, subsidiarily, in Belgian cities, under the aegis of the so-called Möbel-Aktion.

After its seizure, the Auxente/Alexandra Pregel collection was brought to a Dienststelle Westen locale somewhere in Paris. 12 days later, on April 14, 1942, the collection was brought to the Jeu de Paume by two individuals, Mssrs. Mader and Fleischer. As far as we can tell, Herr Mader was the deputy chief of operations for the ERR in Belgium, while Herr Fleischer was the right- hand man and aide-de-camp of Bruno Lohse at the Jeu de Paume in German-occupied Paris. Mader’s involvement with the Auxente collection transfer from the Dienststelle Westen to the Jeu de Paume cannot be readily explained since his main theater of operations was occupied Belgium. But it attests to the intimate links between the French and Belgian operations of the ERR. However, Fleischer’s presence speaks to Bruno Lohse’s interest in the seizure of Pregel’s works, most probably because of her and her husband’s intimate ties to the Russian emigré avant-garde circles, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Paris.

Six months later, on September 14, 1942, Frau Tomforde, one of two ERR staff members assigned to the inventorying of so-called “objectionable” or “degenerate” works stockpiled at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex [see Destruction of works of art, Parts one and two], signed off on the inventory of the Auxente collection. Judging by the paucity and dearth of descriptive information for more than 300 works confiscated by Ms. Pregel—ostensibly, the entire content of her studio--, Ms. Tomforde spent very little time rummaging through the dozens of portfolios containing Pregel’s watercolors and other works on paper. All works by Pregel earned the “vernichtet” label. In other words, all were condemned to be destroyed. Considering the brief titles given by Tomforde to Pregel’s works—still life, woman in red, landscape, etc.--, the decision to purge Pregel’s oeuvre smacks of pure ideological dogma, rather than esthetic considerations. If anything, Pregel was a figurative artist. Her only sin was to be born Jewish with Russian roots.
First page of ERR inventory for AUX.
Source: Bundesarchiv, B323/266
All told, the Auxente collection consisted of close to 370 objects—paintings, including stacks of rolled-up paintings that apparently were not even looked at during the inventorying process, watercolors and other works on paper. Thematically, we can deduce, based on the very terse one or two word descriptions, that they consisted largely of landscapes, portraits, interiors and still lives. Of the 370, 40 were relegated to the art market, leaving 330 condemned to the trash heap.

In sum, the purge of the Auxente/Pregel collection was near-total (90% of Pregel's pre-war production). Oddly enough, the one work not signed by Pregel/Avxente/Auxente was a portrait of noted pacifist author, Blaise Cendrars, attributed to Modigliani (Aux 267). Why was it condemned? Not so much because a Jewish artist painted it but perhaps because of Cendrars’ politics.

To add insult to injury, not a single work was photographed.