24 July 2011

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.