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. 

09 January 2021

“Happy” New Year 2021

By Marc Masurovsky

 

[This opinion piece reflects my own views and does not necessarily represent those of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and its members.]

 

The word “happy” should be framed with heavy quotation marks.  In year two of a worldwide pandemic triggered by the seemingly unstoppable spread of a deadly virus popularly known as COVID-19, our everyday routines have been permanently upended. Each and everyone of us has had to rethink how to make ends meet in a largely virtual world. Millions of lives have been cast into disarray and oftentimes shattered, as a confluence of factors generated and fueled by self-centered human behavior has exarcerbated an already terrifying daily reality:

-inadequate and sometimes cynical government responses to the health crisis—that’s putting it mildly!—and their lukewarm initiatives to stanch the damage they have unwittingly stoked;

-citizens’ extraordinary expressions of self-righteous entitlements about not taking even the most elemental hygienic precautions—mask-wearing, social distancing, limiting involvement with and participation in group events and gatherings—just because they can…;

-illogical and irrational politicizing of basic civil and civic behavior aimed at curbing and neutralizing a deadly virus… just because…

 

Our exit from 2020 allowed us to breathe a sigh of relief with hopes of return to some kind of “normalcy”. That wish was quickly interrupted by the State-sponsored right-wing populist assault on the Congress of the United States on 6 January 2021. The product of decades of discontent and radicalized feelings of alienation, disempowerment of a large segment of the American populace, mixed in with ignorant and uneducated fantasies of Aryan supremacy and profound dislike for the “other” whom these elements have routinely blamed for their own suffering and sense of hopelessness in a fast-moving, rapidly-evolving world. A lethal cocktail that American politicians and elected officials, including the outgoing president, have stoked and manipulated for their own base motives, themselves nurtured by idealizations of what it would be like to be in charge of a largely monolithic, authoritarian, violent and very “white” system.

 

Knowing all of this, is it still possible to continue discussing crimes against culture resulting in the massive displacement of cultural objects owned by individuals or entities targeted for their “otherness”?

 

The answer is a resounding “YES.”

 

The victims of cultural plunder are resoundingly the “others” who don’t fit into a white supremacist, nationalist, monolithic view of a world bereft of difference.

 

Advocating on their behalf means that we uphold their essential humanity, their inalienable right to exist, thrive and create in this world of ours which is theirs.

 

Fighting for the restitution of objects displaced and plundered during the Nazi era, or during conflicts around the world, or resulting from attacks against indigenous communities worldwide, means that we fight for our collective and individual rights to culture, regardless of place and context.

 

Encouraging and promoting a broad-based and democratic approach to the documentation of these displaced objects by acknowledging the stories of their creation and their creators as well as their tumultuous movement occasioned by displacement, theft, misappropriation, and recycling on the international art market.

 

We are all equal and we are all in this together—regardless of race, creed, religion, ethnicity, and belief.  And together, more than ever, we shall prevail, if not for our sake, for the sake of our children and grand-children and their progeny until the ends of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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”