20 April 2011

Provenance riddles at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

The Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal touts a significant and well-endowed permanent collection. However, with regards to the history of ownership of the works that it exhibits, the Musée fails the test of transparency on the provenances that it provides to the public and to experts alike.

To name a few:
'The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha', by Henri Met de Bles (Bouvines, ca. 1510 – unknown date of death), Oil on panel, 29, 8 x 43,2 cm.

Purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend bequest.
Harlebeke (Belgique), abbé J. Gerrant ;
Paris, dealer Kleinberger (en 1936) ;
London, dealer Peter Matthiesson (en 1960) ;
New York, dealer Kleinberger and Co. (1960-1963).
Technically, Kleinberger was in Paris when the Germans invaded in May-June 1940. One of his assistants, Allan Loebl, became seriously mixed up with the occupying power and had unsavory dealings with pro-Nazi merchants and staff members of the ERR, despite the fact that he was Jewish.

Where was Kleinberger in all of this? And why does the painting surface at Matthiesson’s in 1960 only to return to Kleinberger in New York in 1960?

The gap is significant. The good news would be that the painting somehow remained in Kleinberger’s possession throughout the war. But how?
'Travel pouch and documents on a table' by Paulus Bor (Amersfoort, ca. 1601 - Amersfoort 1669). Oil on panel, 56 x 76 cm, painted in 1630
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michal Hornstein
Paris, dealer Galerie Heim (unconfirmed) ;
Amsterdam, dealer de Boer (in 1954 ; unconfirmed) ;
London, Julius Lowenstein (en 1977 ; unconfirmed) ;
Public sale London, Sotheby's, 8 April 1987, no 45, to the dealers Brun
The fact that the Hornsteins gave the painting to the Musée des beaux-arts is the only concrete fact aside from its sale at Sotheby’s London in 1987.

The rest of the ownership history is murky at best and in general “unconfirmed.”

Note the following:

The Heim Gallery did business with the Germans between 1940 and 1944.

Pieter de Boer was one of many Dutch dealers selling to the Germans and especially to the Linzmuseum Project.

Where was the painting before Heim acquired it? When did Heim acquire it? And how does it get to de Boer? And exactly when, since 1954 is an uncertain date?

Last but not least:
Novgorod, Russia
'The Virgin of Jerusalem', 15th c., tempera and gold on panel, 34,7 x 27,6 cm
Purchase, Horsley et Annie Townsend bequest
Paris, Jacques Zolotnitzky (before 1931) ;
Paris, dealer À la Vieille Russie (en 1931) ;
Riabouchinsky (before 1959 ; unconfirmed) ;
New York, dealer J.J. Klejman (in 1961).
Aside from the fact that the provenance of this 15th century Russian item begins in 1931 should already be troublesome, the issue before us is the fact that the item was owned by “A la Vieille Russie”, a gallery in Paris. Unfortunately, the Vichy government closed down the gallery at some point between 1941 and 1944 and put it on the auction block to the highest bidder together with its inventory.

Who is Riabouchinsky? What happened to the inventory of “A la vieille Russie”? Was the Novgorod Virgin with the gallery when Vichy authorities seized it? If so, title to the item is no good because it is stolen property. Answers to these questions would resolve this knotty matter.

As you can see, provenance is everything. It is not only history but it is also a representation of who or what has title to the work. In that sense, provenance becomes a legal document. Something that no one should take lightly.

Until the Museum provides clarity to these provenance riddles, a cloud of ownership will always hang over those works.