31 July 2011

Provenance research becomes political

by Marc Masurovsky

Before there was any talk of restitution of looted art to families of individuals whose cultural assets had been stolen and misappropriated in Axis-controlled Europe between 1933 and 1945, provenance research did not even exist as a specialty, let alone as a concept worthy of address. When works or objects of art were suspected of having a less than savory past, it was incumbent upon civil servants in State-owned museums to look into the ownership history of these objects in search of that piece of information which might determine its plundered origin and, most importantly, ascertain who the rightful owner was and if that person or entity had recovered the suspected object.

Landscapes with Smokestacks, 1890,  Edgar Degas
Source: Art Now and Then
Ownership history, but not provenance research. Provenance was a pro forma addition to the description of an object, that never extended beyond the previous owner, if that. Should that person be of a certain rank or status or evoke historical resonance—Duke of Marlborough, Joseph Bonaparte, Count Lubomirsky, Edouard de Rothschild—it was worth mentioning and fleshing out.

Daniel Searle
Source: Northwestern University
Ever since the controversial recovery in the mid-1990s of a pastel by Edgar Degas from the clutches of Daniel Searle, a billionaire who sat on the board of trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago which led to a bitter civil suit between the Goodman heirs—the spoliated party—and Daniel Searle, the then current owner--, provenance took on a completely different turn and meaning. All of a sudden, while historians had not yet caught up with the complexities associated with Nazi-ordered plunder and spoliation and their implications in the postwar world, lawyers, judges and government officials were forced to weigh in and assess the credibility of long-past historical data in an area where they probably knew something about Hitler, Mussolini, D-Day, and the bridges at Arnhem, but not much more.  Let's not even mention curators and museum directors whose knowledge of the war and Nazi looting was reduced to movies, newsreels, and a handful of general books that they might have read on the subject.

Art Institute of Chicago
Source: Wikipedia
Jest aside, provenance research for the defense meant that historical evidence had to support the rights of the current owner, or, to put it in blunt terms, historical evidence, much like forensic evidence at a criminal trial, would be presented insofar as it supported the case for the defense. Similarly, historical evidence was introduced to buttress the claims of the purported victims who sought the return of their property some sixty odd years after the crime.

Historical documents should never be made to serve either parties. Historical accuracy is all that is required and let the chips fall where they may.  For instance, cases of duress or forced sales are the most contentious to date, because the evidence is complex and the stakes are high as the pieces under scrutiny are worth millions of dollars and museums are fighting tooth and nail to prevent them from being returned, while claimants are seeking to establish that a misappropriation occurred during the formative years of the Third Reich.

George Grosz
Source: Wikipedia
In the lawsuit opposing the heirs of German satirist and Expressionist artist, Georg Grosz, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, new lows have been reached in the presentation and argumentation of historical evidence central to the issues of the case—did Georg Grosz receive adequate compensation for works that his heirs claim were illegally sold at a time of increasing persecution in Nazi Germany?

The experts for the Museum of Modern Art needled the plaintiffs about how to interpret the relationship between Grosz and his dealer, while the plaintiffs’ expert asserted that Grosz had never been compensated for the works under question and that MOMA had obtained them knowing full well that Grosz might actually be the rightful owner but passed over critical aspects of the historical evidence.

Although a separate article is required to explore the depths of this significant case which was settled in favor of MOMA in 2010, the case was rife with accusations from the plaintiffs alleging withholding of key documents by MOMA and unethical behavior by its senior staff, while MOMA’s experts questioned the fact that Grosz had been plundered and suggested that he could go outside of Nazi Gemany to find a buyer for his works and that perhaps he had been compensated by his dealer, Flechtheim, who himself was spoliated by the Nazis.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York
Source: Wikipedia
As interest grows exponentially amongst university and college students in North America and Europe who contemplate a career as provenance research specialists and who wish to specialize in this complex field which is highly inter-disciplinary, there is a correlative ethical question that accompanies such specialization: will they be able to treat historical evidence in an objective manner within the framework of litigation opposing a so-called good faith purchaser (current owner) to a claimant purporting to be the rightful owner? Will provenance research become like any area of specialty where legal conflicts divide experts between pros and cons over the same body of evidence, fueling potential misuse of historical documentation, testimonials, to suit the restrictive context of a litigation?

It is critically important for academic institutions, publishers, and individuals alike to produce detailed and unimpeachable analyses of the dynamics, mechanics, and processes of plunder as they evolved in each country under Axis control, the interrelationship between the market and State-sponsored plunder, the role of art professionals in the abetting of State-sponsored plunder and looting in territories occupied by the Nazis, and the postwar evolution of the art market within the framework of a failed policy of cultural restitution.

Restitution vs. replacement-in-kind: a French approach to cultural plunder

When the Allied powers became gradually aware of the extent of the cultural looting being perpetrated by the Nazis and their local henchmen across continental Europe, they formulated a number of principles which, on face value, were high-minded and honorable.

In the Allies’ view, all items stolen or forcibly removed from the possession of civilians in Nazi-occupied territories should be restituted to the rightful owners upon cessation of hostilities. In other words, once peace returned to the European continent, those who had been stripped of their belongings because of who they were and what they were could obtain the return of those objects, as long as they could be located and identified as theirs. Through an elaborate and ill-organized system of claims, the Allies processed hundreds of thousands of requests for restitution of cultural and other assets.

The simplicity of Allied intentions to return stolen objects to their rightful owners quickly ran afoul of customary international law whereby the rights of nations supersede those of individuals. In terms of property recoveries and returns, Allied diplomats swiftly veered off course and established the preeminent principle of repatriation—the return of looted objects to the country from which it had been forcibly removed. Once repatriation had taken place, the recipient country was held responsible for restituting those returned objects to their rightful owners.

The French postwar authorities responsible for cultural restitution publicly and vociferously stated what many of their formerly occupied neighbors—Belgium and Holland in particular—kept to themselves: that their cultural losses were so extensive that they were entitled to replace those items looted from their territory with items that resembled or were close in value and theme to those which they had lost to the Nazi invader. More specifically, the French government included replacement in kind in its panoply of measures designed to repair the harm done to the French “patrimoine” or “cultural legacy.”  Allied protestations were duly noted (The US and Great Britain opposed replacement policies which were implemented by France and the Soviet Union).

How did this translate into practice?

French missions would set out for the US occupation zones of Germany and Austria armed with lists of objects looted by Nazi officials between 1940 and 1944. The easiest place to find those objects was at the many collecting points established by US authorities to centralize the collection, identification, and disposal of items located across their respective zones of occupation which they suspected of being looted cultural property. Many items were identified as having been acquired in France during the war and therefore could be turned over to the French authorities for return to France.

A careful study of cultural objects assembled under the rubric of “Musées Nationaux Récupération” or MNR allows us to reach certain conclusions.
  1. the American government allowed French recovery missions to repatriate any art object found on German or Austrian soil for which the French laid a claim on the presumption that the item had come from France.  As an example, a search on the word "probablement" (probably) in the "Musées Nationaux Récupération" database yields 222 items which may not be of French origin, but were handed over to France and incorporated into various city and national museums.
  2. Many of those items claimed by the French government had been acquired from merchants, dealers, and galleries in German-occupied France. Whether or not the transaction involved an object looted from a Jewish owner or not was immaterial. The fact is that the object had been acquired in France during the war and brought back to Germany or Austria by its new owners.
  3. Based on the aforementioned, any transaction involving art objects which had occurred in occupied France entitled postwar French authorities to claim those objects as property of the French State regardless of the nature of the transaction.

Photographies prises au Jeu de Paume sous l'Occupation
Source: Site Rose-Valland -- MNR
Who wins?

Clearly, the seller won because he or she was paid fair market value and more for objects sold under Nazi rule.

Clearly, the French government won because it obtained for free items traded during the occupation on the so-called “legitimate” art market, the market against which neither Vichy nor the German occupation authorities dared intervene because it was so lucrative and bountiful for all parties.

In sum, replacement in kind benefited postwar France by replenishing and embellishing its State collections. The French recovery missions, staffed by Museum curators and art specialists, acted as selection committees for vetting future accessions to their collections.

Were the sellers collaborating with the Germans by selling freely and openly to them? If so, were they punished with heavy fines and even jail terms or loss of voting rights? Aside from fines levied against a handful of the most notorious art market dealers, everyone did fine and continued to trade “sans inquiétude”—without any worry whatsoever.

Since most objects in the MNR category were acquired on the “open market” in France during the German occupation, chances are that they had nothing to do with an act of persecution motivated by racial, political, or other motives. For that reason alone, these objects should be removed from the MNR category because it is hypocritical to equate them with objects in that list that truly were plundered from Jewish victims who remain unidentified.

Interestingly enough, real estate that had been owned by Jews and expropriated from them during the Vichy years, to a large extent, was never restituted after the war, even if it was clear as crystal that the property had been subject to an act of plunder through expropriation and forced sale. The same holds for true for factories, stores, banks, investment firms, and other forms of assets, which continue to be claimed today, albeit with highly inconsistent results.

Time to stop picking on France. This story of failed restitution applies universally to all European countries.

Heirless Jewish property and treasure hunting in the Czech Republic

Ever since the end of the Second World War, politicians, diplomats, officials and bureaucrats in leading international Jewish organizations, non-governmental organizations, scholars, and historians alike have butted heads on what to do with so-called “heirless” property, or property for which no rightful owner can be found because, for the most part, the family line was extinguished by genocide and war.

There still is no resolution as to how to treat this problem that spreads discomfort and awkwardness across continents, especially among cultural institutions that are the custodians or owners of objects that can be described as “heirless.” What to do? Do we leave them where they are in display cases or on shelves in museum or gallery warehouses as mute witnesses to the horrors of a recent genocidal past? What if they can be connected to a specific geographic location? Do we then return them to the place from which they might have been collected before their owners were wiped off the face of the earth?

Or do we sell them and use the proceeds of the sales to help needy survivors and their families? A solution that has long been advocated by many Jewish groups and Israeli officials.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch—so to speak—treasure hunters are busy searching for the fruits of plunder abandoned or left behind in secret hideaways by fleeing and highly-resourceful Nazi officers and officials in the waning hours of the Second World War. One set of enterprising Nazis presumably buried over 500 crates filled with treasure and documents inside shafts and underground galleries near Štěchovice, about 30 miles from Prague (Praha). A Florida-based treasure-hunting firm, Assets Restitution International (ARI), has struck a deal with the Czech government to acquire “20% of the value of assets recovered...” This agreement includes a right of first refusal “on all heirless assets.”

While the Czech government makes it nearly impossible for the heirs of Jewish victims to recover property that was stolen by the Nazis and their sympathizers between March 1939 and May 1945, it sees fit to allow treasure hunters to garner their pockets with recovered Jewish property, whether identifiable or not. According to ARI, the potential value of recoverable property might exceed one billion dollars.

Perhaps, the Czech government should steer clear of these fun projects and abide by its international commitments to aid the remaining group of Holocaust survivors recover their property instead of harassing them by erecting countless legal and political roadblocks to prevent them from recovering anything under the sham pretext that the State has superior rights to all of those assets.

To be continued...

29 July 2011

Nazi plunderer Bruno Lohse gets a posthumous rewrite

Bruno Lohse
Source: Jewish Museum Berlin
When SS Captain Bruno Lohse died on March 21, 2007, he left behind him a small treasure of French Impressionist, Old Masters and German Expressionist works. Actually, no one focused on the German Expressionists which lined the walls of his plush Munich apartment. Everyone was agog about the paintings found in his bank safe, especially when German Expressionist artists were damned as purveyors of "bolshevist, Jewish, freemasonic, dark, psychotic" works by Lohse's Nazi peers.

The pundits of the day described Lohse as a Nazi art historian and an agent for Hermann Goering. Both titles are correct, except for the fact that they left out the most important piece of the equation which any self-respecting historian of the Holocaust and of culture in the Third Reich should have realized: Lohse was the deputy commander of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in German-occupied Paris. His boss was SS Colonel von Behr. Both men share in the responsibility of orchestrating between September 1940 and July 1944 the plunder of Jews in German-occupied France, the deaths of innumerable individuals, and the sacking of tens of thousands of residences under the eponymous appellation of Möbel-Aktion (M-Aktion).

The official story of Bruno Lohse has bounced around the Internet uncritically like a blubber ball and without an ounce of desire by the authors of those stories to unravel what lay under the man who, as a tall and handsome Nazi art historian, carved his way through trendy occupied Paris, was able to maintain several ‘garçonnières’—bachelor pads—which also served as his personal depots for art that he personally pilfered from Jewish collections and which found their way decades later into his Swiss safe. It’s not every day that we come across a Nazi war criminal who turns out to be an art dealer and an art collector wooed and consulted in his postwar resurrection by senior curators from many Western museums which shall not be named here for fear of embarrassing them and giving them tomato red cheeks.

Suffice it to say that there is blame here to be ascribed and to be spread around mercilessly amongst those who posture as specialists and experts, but cannot find the time to get their facts straight. The responsibility for conveying accurate and truthful history is denigrated when an obsession with a dead Nazi’s possessions trumps the horrors that he perpetrated as a young art expert in his 30s.

Here are fine examples of the rewriting of Bruno Lohse’s life:

24 July 2011

The Jagershuis, Doorwerth, Holland

by Helen Driessen

With so many terrible things happening in the world, does it make any sense to write about other terrible things that happened more than 60 years ago? A small incident in my life convinced me that it does. Waiting in a line to receive my drivers' license in one of Venezuela´s public offices, which, since the Revolution, are organized according to Cuban, communist rules, and listening to the commanding voice of one of its officers, suddenly I found myself back in my country of birth, Holland, then occupied by German military forces…. Fascism, I realized, under whatever name it goes, never changes and if we don´t denounce it in time, it will always pop up again in some part of the world.

I was born 2 years before the war. My father was the owner of a then very well-known chocolate factory, called Driessen. Besides being a successful businessman, he also was an intellectual, a lover of art, literature and music. He bought a small hunting lodge, the “Jagershuis”, in the woods overlooking the river Rhine in Doorwerth, near Arnhem, and transformed it into an enormous villa.

Outside view of the "Jagershuis"
Source: Helen Driessen
Poets, writers, painters and musicians were our constant visitors. Jean-Paul Sartre and his wife Simone de Beauvoir were often our guests. Besides his Steinway piano, he had a medieval pipe organ installed which he often played for a selected public and which was connected to bells in one of the towers of the house, so that on Sundays, public from the outside could come and listen as well. He had an art collection which was so important, that it was under the protection of the Dutch Government. Even the smallest object in our house was chosen because of its esthetic beauty.

Helen Driessen (seated) with her aunt
Source: Helen Driessen
The Jagershuis "music room" with the organ
Source: Helen Driessen

As a child I remember playing among objets d'art of enormous value. On the few photographs that still exist, I recognize my usual playground of expensive Persian tapestries, ivory statues, beautiful elaborate lamps, chairs, poufs…..I even had my own miniature set of Meissen china from which I ate and drank while the others enjoyed their grown up version of it. In a very modern concept of nature, the trees and vegetation in my father´s woods were kept without any human interference: he had several gardeners tending to them, but he never altered the course of nature. On the whole, between drivers, gardeners, nurses, ladies for laundry and ironing, cleaning and cooking, we had a constant staff of 13 people in and around the house.

Then Germany declared war on Holland and everything changed. The Jagershuis, because of its important strategic position, became in September 1944 a centre of intense combat. In my father’s diaries which were recently rediscovered by the Dutch State Archives, we get an exact picture of how Allies and Germans fought around our house. The movie “One Bridge Too Far” was based on these facts. In the end, the Allies pulled back to one side of the Rhine, while we were on the other side. Germans took over our house. First they arrived in small groups, some Nazi officers lived with us and then came the troops and our house became a barrack, being constantly attacked by the Allies. One of the Nazi officers was an art lover and often stood looking approvingly in front of one of my father´s most treasured works of art: a triptych; “Purificatio Mariae,” by Marco d´Oggione, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, which my father had acquired after months of negotiations from an art gallery in Florence, Italy. (see April 20, 2011: "in search of a triptych 'Purificatio Mariae,' by Marco d'Oggione)

One day we were ordered to leave the house immediately, without taking anything with us. The Ortskommandant who was currently living in the house, told us that according to their espionage service, the house would be bombed flat by the Allies. We left with a wooden cart and nothing else and we stayed that night in our neighbors’ cellar. The next morning my father walked back to the house and to his enormous dismay saw how three big trucks were being loaded with all of our possessions and then departed, supposedly in the direction of Germany. The next day the Allies bombed our house with phosphor bombs and the only thing that reminded us of it, was an enormous hole in the ground.

After having spent several more nights in the cellar, my parents, 5 children and a dachshund on a cart, left and walked for three days to Utrecht, where we found a temporary home and where we spent the famous “winter of hunger”, living on a diet of tulip bulbs with which the Germans sustained the Dutch population.

After the war, and until his death, my father claimed and searched for his possessions. Unfortunately, these being protected by the Dutch Government, he never had them insured and so there does not exist a detailed description of them. His belief that they had arrived safely in Germany was strengthened after the war by the fact that he and my mother, in a hotel in Basel, recognized a Persian tapestry that had belonged to the Jagershuis. Not only was the pattern familiar, but my mother also recognized one of its corners which, regardless of the heavy object that she would put on it, would always flap up…..

For a long time my older sisters continued my father´s search but not being familiar with the complicated world of lost art, their search was not done in a professional way and at the end they gave up. They did however concentrate on one particular work of art, the Marco d´Óggiono tryptic, because, in my father´s factory, they were so lucky as to find its photocopy so that it was easy to recognize..

Now it is up to me, the youngest of the family, who, probably due to a very similar political situation in the country I chose to live in, Venezuela, has taken up the battle with renewed forces. I have many questions. Why are all ways of finding our possessions so full of hindrances and difficulties? Why does not there exist one general database where all stolen works of art are registered? How come there is so much resistance to assist people in recovering their legitimate property? Why is there only this blog dealing with the subject? Why should I live in a difficult financial position without any need? How sad that it is so much easier to find a stolen car than an important work like the Marco d´Oggione!

Here I sit with, in front of me, the only object remaining from all my father´s possessions: a Meissen plate, that was given by my mother to a friend to take a piece of cake home……

The things that one finds on the Internet: Researching the fate of a painting by F. Demoulines

According to a document produced by R. C. Fenton of the British Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW) in London on February 7, 1945, an unframed watercolor full-length portrait of the “last Czarina of Russia,” painted by F. Demoulines was allegedly stored as of May 1944 in a crate at the Free Port of Bilbao in the Basque country of northern Spain, a warehousing area oftentimes used for items being smuggled into Spain from France. This is the same Free Port to which Alois Miedl, Hermann Goering’s trusted banker, shipped dozens of works that had been looted in Holland from the Goudstikker collection on Goering’s behalf.

Document produced by R. C. Fenton of MEW
Source: The National Archive, Kew
The announcement of the purported location of the Demoulines painting was transmitted to a Miss Clay of the British Commission on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and other Material in Enemy Hands, headquartered at Parliament House in London (also known as the Macmillan Committee).

If one types “F. Demoulines” in that ubiquitous global search engine called Google, one lands straight into the lap of the National Archives of the United Kingdom which are ready to provide you with the one-page document pertaining to the Demoulines painting and 80 more pages on related looting matters for the modest sum of 3.50 pounds sterling. To spare you the expense, here is the document. Of course, we can only provide you with the one page.

Aside from all this, the instructive part of this exercise is that the aforementioned note generated by MEW was located at the National Archives in College Park, MD, as an enclosure to despatch No. 20922 dated February 9, 1945, from the US Embassy in London to the US Department of State in Washington, DC. The heading on the despatch read as follows: “Economic Warfare (Safehaven) Series: No. 103.”

Safehaven refers to an Anglo-American counterintelligence operation that was launched in the spring and summer of 1944 by the US government and seconded by the British government to stanch the flow of looted assets being shipped out of the Third Reich and its dependencies into safe harbors or safe havens located most of the time in the so-called neutral or non-belligerent countries of Europe (Spain, Sweden, Switzerland). The Allied powers also suspected Turkey and Argentina of playing a similar ‘safehaven’ role for Nazi plunder.  Their main concern was that these looted assets would serve to finance an underground reconstructed Nazi Party and a hypothetical third world war, or more modestly, to subsidize the early retirement policies of fleeing Nazis and their collaborators.

Our copy of the Demoulines document surfaced in the records of the Foreign Economic Administration (FEA) at the US National Archives. FEA, together with the US Treasury Department and the State Department, jointly operated the so-called Safehaven Program from Washington, DC. Their British counterparts were the Trading with the Enemy Department (TWED), the Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW) until its dissolution in mid-1945 and the Foreign Office (FO).

According to MEW, the Demoulines painting was the property of a Señor José Otero de Arce, a member of Franco’s División Azul (Blue Division), which fought alongside the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front after June 1941. The obvious concern of the British authorities was that Mr. Otero might have picked up the Demoulines work as an ill-gotten souvenir either in Soviet lands or somewhere else, like France maybe.

General Esteban-Infantes (right), chief of the Blue Divison, with the German high command in 1943
Source: Atlantic - EFE via El País
The problem here is that there is no apparent trace of any 19th century artist who goes by the name of “F. Demoulines” or even Demoulines. Undoubtedly, something resembling such a painting arrived for storage at Bilbao. Beyond that point, one might never know exactly who the actual artist was and if in fact the painting was a portrait of the Czarina Alexandra.

Norton Simon Museum
Source: Wikipedia
There are thousands of documents such as this one, which were generated by wartime and postwar Allied officials who diligently brought to official attention the presence of possible looted items across Europe and the Americas. With little else to go by, most of those notifications ended up in a circular file, except when conscientious investigators were able to connect bits and pieces of information to form a pattern from which to deduce that an investigation was warranted, as in the case of Alois Miedl who scattered the fruits of his plunder across Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain. Miedl’s plunder of the Goudstikker collection spawned investigative leads across the world, and especially in North America where many Goudstikker paintings have been located, one of which is taking up a lot of legal time—the Adam and Eve panels by Lucas Cranach which are currently at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

21 July 2011

ERR database–Robert Schumann aka Robert Schuhmann

If the records of the Einsatztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) are to be believed, the ERR stole only one item from Robert Schumann’s Parisian apartment—an Aubusson tapestry produced under Louis XVI.

Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
The Répertoire des Biens Spoliés en France, that postwar monument to wartime cultural plunder under German occupation, a masterpiece of understatement, records only one item under Robert Schumann’s name—an Aubusson tapestry.

All is good. The stars are aligned. Mr. Schumann recovered his tapestry on 7 November 1947 after it was found at the ERR depot of Buxheim.

Here is where it gets complicated:

Robert Schumann informed the French government’s restitution commission—the Commission de récupération artistique (CRA)—that he had lost not only his Aubusson tapestry but also the following items:
  • a Steinway piano bearing the registration number 118 524,
  • a collection of 474 prints and etchings signed by Félicien Rops, as well as watercolors and drawings signed by Rops,
    Felicien Rops
    Source: ardennes-etapes.com
  • a collection of 12 Renaissance period Swiss stained glass,
  • assorted antique porcelain and high-end textiles (lampas, brocades, and the like).
We all know that life is unfair and postwar officials did the best they could with the information and resources that they had in hand.

Nevertheless, the French government opted not to list 474 works signed by Félicien Rops despite the fact that there is a section in the Répertoire entitled “Tableaux et dessins” (Paintings and drawings). The same goes for the 12 Renaissance Swiss stained glass pieces. Although titles and print states were supplied for the Rops items, they were not counted as official losses and subsequently recorded. Therefore, what criteria did the CRA use to select items for inclusion in the Répertoire, the only official document printed by the French government after 1945 with which it could inform the outside world of items still listed as missing and therefore looted and subject to seizure? could it be that Robert Schumann lost interest in his collection of original Rops works? Did he get all philosophical about his losses thinking "time to move on"? Then, why bother reporting the objects as missing?

After all, it is complicated to search for works on paper. They are easy to conceal, most often there are no obvious markings on them that might distinguish them from other similar items.  This is especially true with any work reproduced from stone or plate through a press. And yet, there is a market for works by Félicien Rops as there is for Swiss Renaissance era stained glass. Could it be that a search for these items would necessitate a deeper investigation into the sinews of the art market? One can only speculate. But, as of now, if one totals up Robert Schumann’s net losses, they amount to at least 500 items, of which he recovered one—his Aubusson tapestry.

20 July 2011

Nazi art historians and the Netsuke

by Marc Masurovsky

Life at the Jeu de Paume for any art historian would have been the closest thing to working in an aesthetic playpen. Every day, new shipments of stolen cultural property entered the Jeu de Paume. Your job was to examine, sort, describe, card, index, and prepare these items either for shipment or for sale.

The Japanese netsuke (根付) are a case in point.

Dr. Boschert and Ms. Tomforde at the Jeu de Paume processed cultural objects produced in the Far East which had been looted from Jewish homes in and around Paris. Those objects coming from "unidentifiable owners" were catalogued under the acronym MA-OST (Möbel-Aktion).

Judging by the photographs that were taken at the Jeu de Paume, Boschert and Tomforde indulged themselves in a comparative examination of the netsuke. Indeed, items classified as MA-OST were comingled with items from the RHE collection in staged group photographs. RHE objects belonged to Maurice Rheims, a highly respected French art historian and auctioneer at famed Hôtel Drouot in Paris.

The Rheims netsuke together with the rest of his art and artifact collection arrived at the Jeu de Paume in November 1942 while the MA-OST items were catalogued on 1 February 1943. The photographs were taken before their shipment to the ERR depot of Buxheim.

For more details concerning these and other netsuke, please go to www.errproject.org/jeudepaume. Type in "netsuke" in the search box.

Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
Mennetsuke (面根付) in RHE and MA-OST
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv

15 July 2011

The Wildenstein reality check

by Marc Masurovsky
[This article was updated on May 25, 2018.]

Guy Wildenstein found himself in a sticky situation pertaining to various matters involving art, money, and power.  In 2017, Wildenstein was cleared of tax fraud, but in March 2018, the French government, on appeal, requested four years of prison, with two suspended, and a punitive payment of 250 million euros.  The Wildensteins have asked that the charges be dropped. Why should all of this matter?

Aside from the fact that the Wildenstein name alone is synonymous with everything that is gigantic and disproportionate in the way that art is traded in today’s world, so it has been for the past six or so decades.

The Wildenstein family can only be matched in its zest for influence with the eponymous “robber barons” of US industry. With equal doses of verve, recklessness, swashbuckling ways and bravado, with not so subtle shades of arrogance, the Wildenstein dynasty has imposed itself upon the global art market as one of its kingmakers, with traditional spheres of influence centered in Western Europe and North America.

Why the hullabaloo? For many, it is more like a sporting game to go after the powerful and mighty of any industry, and especially nowadays those in the art industry which provide much grist for the mill. Yes, industry, as opposed to taste. Or taste in the pursuit of profit. No matter.

Georges Wildenstein was the true scion of the family, the man who made Daniel, his late son, and Daniel thence made his sons, Guy and Alec (he died in 2008), in the dynastic family mold, for better or for worse.  The flagship of his business was in Paris with branches in London, New York, and even Buenos Aires. Georges knew everyone there was to know, much like his archrival, Paul Rosenberg. Although keenly interested in 19th and 20th century artists, he definitely expressed a marked preference for the 18th century and its creators, stylists, and decorators. In fact, that’s where he excelled. Old Masters? Of course. Medieval pieces? Why not?

The Wildenstein clientele is powerful, both in private as well as in State circles. Georges was well introduced among curators and directors of museums across Europe and the Americas; a well-heeled man with his frivolities, paranoid moments, and phobias.

Georges fled to the south of France before the German Army entered Paris in June 1940, leaving his Parisian business in the managerial care of Roger Dequoy, who had run his London office.

Georges ended up in New York via Lisbon, a preferred route for most exiles at that time who crossed the Atlantic either by Pan Am clipper or by boat, depending on means and resources.

The Wildenstein interests in Paris were quickly subjected to the gluttony of the Nazis’ culture vultures. Competing German plundering units raided at least five sites owned or controlled by Georges Wildenstein, including two bank vaults, his gallery in Paris, and three residences with two in the French countryside.  The gallery’s stock, Georges’ privately-owned inventory in half-a-dozen locations across France, as well as a handful of bank vaults, fell into the hands of the Nazis by the second half of 1941. His library attracted many interested buyers including a close friend of René de Chambrun who intrigued with the pro-Nazi industrial group in Vichy France, aspiring for the new France to be the Aryan vassal of the New Germany. The Gazette des Beaux-Arts, which Wildenstein had run for decades, together with the rest of his assets, were subjected to Aryanization proceedings under the aegis of the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives (CGQJ). Certain German interests represented by Karl Haberstock, a senior Nazi cultural agent operating in occupied territories, sought to derail Vichy’s absorption of Wildenstein’s assets in order to channel them under Nazi control. Regardless, Georges was a bona fide victim of Nazi aggression and cultural plunder.

The plot thickens... and this is where Hector Feliciano, author of “The Lost Museum”, got himself in a legal hornet’s nest with Georges Wildenstein’s heirs. Although the Wildenstein suit against Feliciano was eventually dismissed, it nearly ruined Mr. Feliciano.  Haberstock and Wildenstein were old friends and business partners. Together, they had acquired and sold paintings for at least a decade prior to 1940. Feliciano implied that Georges and Karl had struck a deal whereby Georges’ cultural assets would fall under Nazi protection and he could continue to do business as he liked in German-occupied France under the stewardship of Karl Haberstock, using Dequoy as a go-between. A hefty charge which requires flawless historical documentation. Incidentally, the Foreign Funds Control Division of the US Treasury Department under Henry Morgenthau suspected as much and monitored Georges Wildenstein's cable traffic throughout 1941.

Dequoy’s wartime management of the Wildenstein House in German-occupied Paris proved to be a financial bonanza for him as he had engineered the Aryanization of the gallery, which Vichy and the Germans had suspected of being a sham to cloak Georges Wildenstein’s assets. Nevertheless, Dequoy survived the war unscathed and a rich man. Wildenstein continued to rely on his managerial experience with the firm in the postwar years.

Wildenstein’s wartime cultural losses are well-documented, most notably in the publicly accessible and fully searchable ERR database where more than 500 objects owned by Georges Wildenstein are listed as having been looted by the Nazis. Many works are still missing. There are also concerns that looted objects belonging to other victims of Nazi plunder might have been erroneously transferred to Georges Wildenstein by French restitution authorities after the war. If that is true, his case would be no different than those of many other victims of Nazi plunder since these flawed returns contaminated many postwar restitutions, a perverse way for postwar European governments of applying the law of in-kind restitution: if it looks like your object, why don’t you take it anyway?

Only a detailed and comparative forensic analysis of postwar restitution files can resolve these knotty questions. They have direct relevance to the controversy over the so-called Kann manuscripts—stunning medieval books which were looted from Alphonse Kann’s house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye between summer 1940 and spring of 1941. A number of them were still missing in 1945. At least one had fallen, according to the Kann heirs, into the hands of Georges Wildenstein who, truth be told, had lost similar manuscripts as well. A lengthy legal battle ensued in an American court which pitted the Kann heirs against the Wildenstein interests. Despite the fact that an art historian close to the Wildensteins could not certify that Wildenstein had ever owned the claimed manuscripts, the Kanns lost on technical grounds, not on historical substance.  From a forensic and historical standpoint, the case remains open for renewed investigation.  However, it is unlikely that it will be reopened, despite the fact that the historical evidence mitigated in favor of the Kann family.

10 July 2011

Exhibit of works of art that are not works of art

Please refer to the 10 July 2011 post entitled “A work of art is not a work of art”

Here are some of the 29 works of art which were ruled unfit by the French government restitution commission (CRA) to be considered as works of art. They were handed over to the OBIP in mid-1947.  None of the owners could be identified since the works were seized during M-Aktion by units linked to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in the Paris region.

One can only assume that the esthetic judgment of the CRA was critical in making the final decision to exclude these works from the broad category of “work of art.”

You be the judge…

Maurice Wagemans, "Port de pêche"
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv

Paul Désiré Trouillebert, "Paysage"
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchive
France, 19ème siècle, “Fleurs”
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
Jacques de La Joue, "La Botanique"
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
B. Genzmer, "Fonctionnaire à la porte d’une maison"
Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv

A work of art is not a work of art

Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
On 30 May 1947, the French “Commission de récupération artistique” (CRA) handed over 29 works and objects of art to the “Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés” (OBIP) because it ruled that they could not be considered as being part of the “Patrimoine National.” The CRA’s decision was founded on a definition of what constitutes a “work of art” determined at a 2 November 1945 session of the CRA. In other words, the CRA came up with its own definition of what a “work of art” is …. or is not.

The “Patrimoine National” is literally the “national heritage,” a fluid concept applied to any item that is deemed to be incorporated into the heritage of a nation. Although this is not the time to engage in a full-scaled discussion of what is worthy of being considered as part of the national heritage, suffice it to say that the definition is highly malleable and subject to the fleeting whims of governments. However, once an object enters the “patrimoine national,” it is unlikely that it leaves it…ever. If the item turns out to have been looted during a military conflict or, worse, an act of genocide, regardless, restitution is nigh impossible because the “patrimoine national” trumps the rights of individuals if they seek restitution of items that have become part of the heritage of a nation.

None of the items could be officially linked to a particular owner as they were labeled by the Germans as MA-B (Möbel-Aktion Bilder) or Unb (Unbekannt)… except for one.

Slight oversight on the part of the French government or just plain sloppiness?

The item in question was labeled “KS 538 – 6432.” It was described as a cartel signed by the French painter Prud’hon and entitled “Femme au bain.”

KS 538-6432
Source: MCCP Database via Bundesarchiv
The number 6432 refers to a number assigned by US authorities at the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP). The MCCP card for item 6432 identified the painting by Prud’hon as a “bathing nymph”. There was another number assigned to the painting: SEL 531

SEL 531
Source: ERR Project via NARA
SEL is an acronym assigned by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Paris for any item looted from the Seligmann family. Therefore, the allegedly ownerless Prud’hon painting belonged to Seligmann whose antiques business at the Place Vendôme in Paris was thoroughly looted beginning in early July 1940.  The painting was restituted to the Jacques Seligmann Company on 15 January 1948 and its legal representative, René Fulda.

Let’s go back to the initial sentence which indicates that the CRA did not consider the painting to be part of the “Patrimoine National.” What would have happened if the CRA had ruled the Seligmann painting as belonging to the “Patrimoine national”? It would have been incorporated into a French museum collection. What about the rights of the Seligmann family to recover this work of art even if the CRA considered it to be part of the “Patrimoine National”? One has to wonder if the CRA even bothered to notify families whose works were deemed to be worthy of inclusion in the “Patrimoine National”?

More importantly, how does a French government agency decide whether or not a work of art is a work of art?

08 July 2011

The Appropriate Place For All That Stuff

by Ori Z. Soltes

It is certainly true of much of the material culture of European Jewry that its pre-Holocaust dwelling places may no longer be appropriate to it. After all, with the profound decimation of that population, hundreds and hundreds of communities that once included small or large Jewish populations have been completely Judenrein for the past eight decades. There is, at first glance, then, little logic to returning, say, Judaica that derived from the Danzig Jewish community to Danzig (aka Gdańsk) when there is no Jewish community to make use of it or to bask in its artistic glow.

Moreover there are those who argue that the point of possessing objects whose former owners—individuals or communities—did not survive is to display them in order to assure that such individuals and communities not be forgotten but be remembered through the survival of their objects; or better still, where Judaica in particular is concerned, to use them, thus symbolizing with actions and not merely written or spoken words the continuity of Jewish life—as a kind of transcendence of the mortality to which such individuals or communities were too quickly subject. Thus every vibrant Jewish American community in whose synagogue there rests a Torah scroll rescued from the Holocaust becomes a link in a chain of continuity.

Where the state of Israel is concerned, the polity itself was founded and formed as the ultimate exemplum of Jewish continuity: marked by a return to the Land after an enforced absence of nineteen centuries, rebuilding it as that process rebuilt (and continues to re build) countless Jewish lives truncated by events ranging from the destruction effected by the Holocaust to the varied modes of oppression practiced by regimes in places like Libya, or Ethiopia, or the former Soviet Union.

As in so many areas of Israeli exceptionalism within the contemporary Jewish world, there are those who would argue that works of Jewish art and Judaica without an unequivocal tie to a current individual or community—and even in some cases, where the tie is present—should reside in Israel, as part of its role as consummate bearer of the Jewish torch. That argument would regard Israel as the most appropriate place for any Pissarro that comes to light, or for paintings discovered behind a layer of pink wall-paint in a pantry in Ukrainian (formerly Polish) Drogobych by Bruno Schultz, a Holocaust victim best known for his writings.

Several issues intersect each other in this discussion, of course. As a practical matter, a greater complication attends ceremonial objects, as opposed to signed paintings or drawings and sculptures, with respect to restituting them to their original owners or their heirs or the communities from which they exited under such unhappy circumstances. For so many such objects resemble each other and, unsigned and unmarked, would with difficulty be recognizable as coming from particular places, unless someone from those places who survived and was intimate enough with them came forth to make the identification.

Most often those unhappy circumstances were brutal and haphazard. Occasionally, a community like that of Danzig saw the writing on the world and sent its ritual objects forth—a kind of ceremonial objects Kindertransport process—hoping to reclaim them when the horror had ended. But by then there was no community to do the reclamation and the objects were happily ensconced in primarily British and American collections—in museums as much as or more than synagogues. Poorly detailed acquisition records in these collections and limited identification marks would make it problematic for such objects ever to find their way back to the home which is no longer a home.

But—well when I used to direct the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum over a decade ago, I became acutely conscious of the conundrum I would face were someone to walk in one day and say—referring to a splendid pair of Shabbat candlesticks from Danzig dating, perhaps, from 1685 and inscribed with the name of the family that commissioned them—“that’s my family; we were from the destroyed Danzig Jewish community. I’d like to have them back within my, family…” How could I verify that s/he was who s/he claimed to be?

How would my responsibility, as someone who believes in restitution of Nazi-plundered art to those from whose families it was taken, play out a against my responsibility as the keeper of a kind of public trust—which public trust, as I interpret it, is to tell the story, again and again, of those candlesticks in terms of their style, the importance of the Hebrew inscription in confirming that they were Shabbat candlesticks and not merely mantel piece candlesticks, the story of the Danzig community and its fate?

What of more obscure ceremonial objects on the one hand, or more clearly identifiable works of art—signed drawings and paintings, say—on the other. Had I a Pissarro in my collections and the provenance path led to a given claimant, there is little doubt in my mind that my primary sense of obligation would be to return it, and allow that claimant to determine its private or public future.

My museum, if it were to effectively fulfill its obligation to teach about Jewish history and culture, Jewish legal and moral thought, could hardly claim to live up to that responsibility if it denied the right of an individual or family to regain a work that had once belonged to him/her or their family—even if that act might remove an important teaching instrument from the public eye.

This is a can of worms, isn’t it? Should the Schultz paintings have come to Israel, rather than remaining in the place where he was murdered? Would they serve a better educative purpose where more people would see them, in Jerusalem than in Ukraine? Would they serve a better educative purpose in Ukraine, where the Jewish vibrancy that once prevailed there died with individuals like Schultz, than in Israel, where Yad VaShem continues to astonish the museum world with innovative ideas and every year is marked by a Yom HaShoah commemoration?

I am not certain of the answers, but I am certain that we must continue to force institutions and even governments to continue to ask these questions and to be willing to consider answers that may not necessarily leave them in possession of works that have somehow arrived at their doors, as if the diaspora of these objects has inherently ended and as if, no questions asked, they have found their appropriate place as part of the process of Jewish preservation and continuity far from their original homes.

05 July 2011

Who Could Believe that It Was Happening, Even as It was Happening?

A commentary by Ori Z. Soltes, chair of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP)

Ori Z. Soltes
Source: The Great Courses
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a peculiar sort of discussion emerged eventually that, in some corners, continues to this day. That discussion pertained to the idea that the victims of the Holocaust, primarily the Jews, went “like sheep to the slaughter,” instead of fighting back. Accusing the victim for being victimized has long been an instrument with which humans who were in a position to help the victim but did not, assuage their guilt for their own failure. Blaming those who were herded and branded and slaughtered like cattle for not responding to the program of Nazi deceptions until it was too late might assuage and has alleviated that guilt for many, as they sought a return to normal lives.

It is always easy to blame someone else, and in this case, the guilt has run particularly deep and wide—not just those Germans or Austrians or French who stood idly by or contributed actively to the slaughter, but the British and the Americans who famously refused to bomb the train tracks to the killing centers, and who kept their immigration quota doors closed tight or made the paths to Palestine all but impassable. For it was one thing to be fighting the Germans and their allies in World War II, and another altogether to be fighting the Nazis in the Holocaust.

The numbers of Jews who did fight back remained, for the most part, unheralded and forgotten until the last few decades. Inevitably, those who fought did so with very little in the way of armaments and with very little reliable support from—even, at times, finding themselves betrayed by—the various non-Jewish underground forces who were themselves fighting the Nazis. Conversely, the myriad times and places in which well-armed or at least militarily experienced forces failed to resist or, in captivity, to rise up against their captors has typically been ignored.

Moreover, as in any large lie there may be a smaller element of truth, it is true that many (perhaps most) Jews did not resist. A perfect storm combined the Nazi genius for willful deception—to simplify the process of extermination by encouraging their victims to believe that they were not on the verge of victimhood—together with the victims’ desire to believe, and therefore to be deceived, that this was a storm that, like so many others in Jewish history, would pass. Physical resistance, in any case, had not been the primary means for a fragmentary minority to survive over the centuries in the face of hostility from the majority population.

For German and Austrian Jews in particular, the sense of having arrived at a point of truly being part of that majority mainstream—socially, economically, culturally, even to some extent politically—militated against believing that what was happening was happening. In the discussion of this issue it has often been pointed out that the very fabric of the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Austrian and German communities was so interwoven with Jewish threads that, had the Holocaust not followed, historians would be constantly waxing about the Golden Age for Jews in those countries in that era. The photograph of which Sigmund Freud—to name one Jewish luminary among many within the Viennese firmament—was proudest, showed him with his two sons, both of in Austro-Hungarian military uniform; they were among myriad Jews who served in the Hapsburg and Prussian armies between the end of the eighteenth century and the end of World War I.

On the other hand, the Golden Age was by no means free of anti-Semitism (in fact the very term was a coinage of that era, as the Prussian pamphleteer, Wilhelm Marr, was the first one to label the Jews “Semites” in 1878—but that’s another story for another day). But this is part of what made the Nazi era so inexplicable as it gradually unfurled its full fury against the Jews. Who could imagine that such a definitive exterminationist intention would be directed toward a population so integrated into that world?

Marc Masurovsky and I uncovered one of the most extraordinary proofs of this a few years back as we were systematically studying the property census forms that every family with even an oblique Jewish component or connection was required to fill out for the Nazis after Austria fell before—or rather, embraced—the Anschluss. Our interest was in the cultural and similar property that the Nazis confiscated based on these on-demand listings of everything from silverware, desk lamps and jewelry to paintings, drawings and sculpture.

But along the way, we noted three other, unexpected features. One was the prevalent tone assumed by a good number of those who filled out the forms: little jocular side notes, as if submitting a report to a long-time superior with whom one has a warm, friendly relationship—as opposed to filling out what would amount to one’s death warrant. A second was the fact that a number of these forms were filled out and sent in from places as far away as Ankara and even New York City. This might have been out of fear for family members still in Austria, but may well have been out of a Teutonic sense of duty: one is required by the authorities to fill out a form as a Jew, then as a Jew more Viennese than the Viennese, one fills out the form—because regardless of where one lives one remains emphatically a Viennese.

Most intriguing is the third feature: virtually every form indicated the possession of real estate—from the partial ownership of an apartment to that of multiple apartment buildings and factories. The fact is that one does not invest in real estate if one has the slightest inkling of needing to leave a place quickly—it is too difficult to liquidate with alacrity. All of these Jews who bought real estate to live in, work in or employ others in, had to have been powerfully certain that they were in Vienna (after more than eight hundred years) to stay. When the Anschluss arrived and, as often happened, their neighbors turned against them, they could neither understand nor believe what was happening; it would not have occurred to them to “fight back.” That once-golden world disappeared before their eyes, never to be restored.

Ori Z. Soltes

Interpreting a restituted Vuillard painting

Another reminder of how complex, inadequate, and frustrating art-historical and forensic research can be when one seeks to verify the antecedents of a looted painting.

In this case, a painting by Edouard Vuillard disappeared during the German occupation of Paris from the apartment of Gaston Hemmendinger who once lived at 138, rue de Courcelles, in Paris. Its title was: “Les Premiers Pas—Jardins du Luxembourg,” a vertical panel measuring 2,12 m x 0,84 m.

Hemmendinger had purchased the panel at the sale of Thadée Natanson’s collection on 16 May 1929 (Lot 119). While Natanson was a close friend of Vuillard who had commissioned him to produce a series of panels for his ample Parisian residence on avenue du Bois, Vuillard had eyes only for his wife, Misia. But that’s another story entirely…

The descriptive information about the painting comes from Hemmendinger’s postwar French restitution files. In that same file, there is a reference to a panel by Vuillard described as “Enfants jouant au Luxembourg” which was restituted to Hemmendinger on 21 January 1948 by French authorities. Already, there is a subtle disconnect between that title and the title of the panel which Hemmendinger declared in his inventory: “Les premiers pas…” or “First steps…”

MA-B 1224
Source: ERR Project via NARA
The painting that was restituted to Hemmendinger was labeled MA-B 1224, or stolen by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Paris during Möbel-Aktion. A check of the card typed by a staff member of the ERR at the Jeu de Paume where the painting by Vuillard was processed tells us that the card was typed at some point in January 1944 and was entitled “Junges Mädchen auf Parkweg mit Kind spielend. Im Hintergrund drei Frauen auf Bank vor Kastenienbaum.” In plain English, “Young girls in a park with a child playing. In the background, three women on a bench in front of a chestnut tree.”

According to the inventory drawn up by the ERR, the painting known as MA-B 1224 was brought into the Jeu de Paume at some point in November 1943 and was shipped out to an ERR depot in Nikolsburg, in Bohemia, on 21 December 1943. The dimensions of this painting are listed as 2,13 m x 0,61 m. As indicated above, the size of the painting differs from the size of the work mentioned in Hemmendinger’s inventory.

Are we doubting that Gaston Hemmendinger actually retrieved his Vuillard panel which he had acquired at the Natanson sale of 1929?

Let’s go now to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris which owns a series of four panels produced by Vuillard in 1894 for Natanson. There is an interesting paragraph which indicates that one of the paintings produced as part of the series is known as “Les Premiers Pas.” Its present whereabouts are unknown.

Two of the panels at the Musée d’Orsay (“Les nourrices” and “fillettes jouant”) match part of the description found on the January 1944 ERR card as well as the measurements in Hemmendinger’s inventory that he supplied to the French government as part of his restitution file.

We might never know what actually happened. The discrepancies between the Hemmendinger description, the description of MA-B 1224 and the indication on the Musée d’Orsay website that the present whereabouts of Hemmendinger’s Vuillard panel “Les premiers pas” remain “unknown” may hint at an erroneous restitution of a Vuillard panel to Gaston Hemmendinger.


Thanks to a devoted reader of the "plundered art" blog, we can answer the aforementioned question regarding a possible erroneous restitution.  The painting by Edouard Vuillard entitled "Les Premiers Pas..." which he painted in 1894 was in fact restituted to Gaston Hemmendinger.

This is what our reader told us:

Just read your post about Gaston Gemmendinger's (Hemmendinger's) distemper Les premiers pas. The whereabouts of the painting are actually pretty known... See the impressive Guy Cogeval catalogue for Vuillard's major retrospective which started at the Washington National Gallery in 2003 and then traveled to Montreal, Paris and London. I saw it at the last stop at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2004. The painting under discussion is published in Cogeval's catalogue as follows:
#116, p. 172, 177 (ill.)The Public Gardens: The First Steps Les jardins publics. Les 
premiers pas. 1894, distemper on canvas, 213.4 x 68.5Signed and dated l. r.: E. Vuillard 94United States, Tom James Company / Oxford Clothes 
Cogeval-SALOMON V. 39-7 
Provenance: Alexandre Natanson Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 16, 1929, lot 119 (ill.) - M. Kleinmann, Paris - Gaston Gemmendinger, Paris - Seized by the Nazis during the Occupation; restitution - Private collection - Tom James Co./Oxxford Clothes, United States 
Exhibitions: Chicago - New York, 2001, no. 32, col. ill. p. 121 
Chicago, Art Institute, Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930, February 25-May 16; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 26 - September 9. 
Vuillard: The Inexhaustible Glance
Source: BookDepository.co.uk
The moral of this story is two-fold: 

The sources should always be questioned, even if they come from the revered Musée d’Orsay in Paris or from the French government's own postwar restitution records.