20 September 2020

Research and sanity during a pandemic

by Marc Masurovsky


Together with millions of men, women and children around the world, we have found ourselves trapped in a reality that we did not invite or want. 200,000 American citizens have lost their lives to a rampant virus which has not spared anyone that it comes into contact with. Failed public policies, reprehensible personal lifestyle choices and political callousness have only exacerbated what experts say was a highly preventable health crisis. 


The pandemic has taken a horrendous toll--emotional, physical and economic—on entire communities across the US and around the world. Although wearing a mask has turned out to be a no-brainer cheap way to stem the viral onslaught, for many, it’s an affront. An aspect of human behavior which I cannot fathom.


On a personal note….


My bedroom/study has become my operational epicenter, a small desk on which all of my tools are assembled—laptop, external drives, headset, printer, pens, post-its, lamp, the requisite pile of books, small teapot, tea cup and phone.  I do my best to keep the tea from spilling on the electronics.


My interactions with the outside world are even more filtered and skewed than before, relying almost exclusively on the technology of available bandwidth and uplinks to gain access to the internet, cable television, and Netflix. Staying sane is priority number one, tied with staving off COVID-19. The two have become unhappy bedfellows. Wanting to be hugged and held tight as a sign of human contact and love appear to be far off into the future.


On a professional note….


How can one make a project move forward that is anchored almost exclusively in on-site archival research? The National Archives are closed, as are the Archives of American Art (AAA) and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM.  The same with museums, universities and libraries.  Fold3.com (a digital container which contains a comprehensive sample of critical records pertaining to plunder during the Nazi years) and other research-focused websites have proven to be (relatively) lifesaving (not by much, though), making it possible to retrieve relevant documents. However, those digital resources have now been exhausted. 


The shuttering of archives on both sides of the Atlantic has put on hold, delayed and canceled entire research projects, many of which rely on cohorts of researchers and analysts plowing through archives in Paris, Munich, Koblenz, the Hague, Amsterdam, and London, to name a few. Furloughs and layoffs of research personnel across borders and oceans have been the inevitable consequence, sadly so, especially in the precarious freelance and independent research community but also in research facilities, small and large museums alike, and other cultural institutions. The long-term damage of these surgical operations against human capital is incalculable.


Can research projects survive in such a restrictive environment once on-site research and consultation of documents are no longer possible?  Is the Internet really cracked up to serve as a digital surrogate of real life? In the case of deep archival research, the short answer is no.  Data aggregators compiling information about works and objects of art sold at auction for the past three decades provide some limited solace which only fuels more anxiety and apprehension at the thought of conducting in-depth research.


Worst case scenario: the research stops, I/we hoist the white flag out of resignation and surrender in the face of a hopelessly vain quest to gain access to and obtain research materials.  


On a happier note…


The pandemic has put to the test long-established and newly emerging networks of affection and affiliation that bring together researchers, museum professionals, historians, cultural officials, archivists and librarians in many different countries and disciplines.  I can report with great relief that, so far as I have experienced and witnessed them, the ties that bind have so far have seemingly withstood the test of fractured physical encounters as evidenced by the amount of virtual assistance provided by archivists and specialists (so far) in the United States, France, the Netherlands and Germany. They have generously shared thousands of images of archival documents in unexpected expressions of collegiality and international cooperation.  Zoom conferences can only do so much but are a pale substitute for face-to-face organic encounters in enclosed spaces.


On a more personal note, the years-long hoarding of print and digital copies of archival documents has proven to be extremely useful. Under non-pandemic circumstances, this behavior might be viewed as suspect and an outward symptom of a serious psychological disorder.  Still, these virtual and physical mountains of documents have proven to be a lifesaver as they contain much relevant information, in most cases with the appropriate archival citation.


The continuing bad news is that the global health crisis shows no weakness, travel restrictions remain in place especially between the United States-major culprit in sustaining the pandemic—and a host of countries around the world. The better news is that archives are reopening in Western Europe under less than favorable circumstances for sustained research. The same goes for libraries and museums. Access—albeit limited--is resuming under restrictive conditions.


The next few years are going to be extremely challenging. In our narrow niche we explore the devastations wrought against culture, cultural rights and cultural goods, and the complexities of locating and recovering these displaced objects wherever they are.  Access to documents and know-how is essential to unravel the interlacing networks that favor and shape the displacement and dispersal of these objects over time and space. Without access to primary sources and other research efforts, it is difficult and oftentimes nigh impossible to understand the what, where, when, why and by whom of the problem. In order to mitigate our inability to gain access to documents, it is imperative that we shed whatever reluctance and reservation we may have about opening and sharing the knowledge that we have amassed over the years. We need to make it available to those who need it—personal company included--, so that all of our efforts, individual and combined, are not lost and wasted and they can be sustained, strengthened and disseminated so that we may all profit for our own good and for the common good.


Stay safe… This too shall pass. But at what price?

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.