21 November 2011

"Christ carrying the cross," by Girolamo di Romano

Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue, Girolamo Romano
Source: New York Times, Arts Beat
Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science (Tallahassee, FL)
Source: Wikipedia
Shortly after noon, on November 4, 2011, a group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents entered the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida. Armed with a seizure warrant signed by US Attorney, Pamela Marsh, the agents removed a painting by Girolamo di Romano (also known as “Romanino”) entitled “Christ carrying the cross”, on suspicions that the painting was stolen property belonging to the heirs of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, an Italian Jewish patriarch who had lived in France and had died there in 1940 shortly before the German invasion of May 1940.

The painting was part of a major loan exhibit from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy, that had graced the walls of the Tallahassee museum since March 2011 until the show closed on September 4. All the works returned to Milan except for the Romanino.

Anonymous ICE Official at Seizure
Source: ICE
The Pinacoteca had acquired the Romanino painting on the private art market in 1988, obviously without due consideration for the provenance of the work itself.

In 2001, the Gentili di Giuseppe heirs petitioned the Italian government and the Pinacoteca to return the painting to their family, in vain. Aware that the painting was being exhibited in the United States, Gentili di Giuseppe’s grandson, Lionel Salem, contacted Chucha Barber, director of the Mary Brogan Museum, to discuss the painting and to notify her of his belief that this was the same painting that had been illegally sold by the Vichy government in 1941 and was thus subject to restitution.

Several comments are needed here:

Pinacoteca di Brera (Milan, Italy)
Source: Wikipedia
Firstly, no one in the press has pointed out that the Pinacoteca and the Italian government had been aware for over a decade of the questionable origin of the Romanino painting. Hence, when the Pinacoteca agreed to send the painting to Tallahassee, the Italian government authorized its export, despite the fact that a potentially stolen cultural asset was leaving the borders of Italy, entering United States territory and thus transferring the risk to the host, the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science.

Secondly, neither the Pinacoteca nor the Italian government deemed it necessary to alert Ms. Barber that there might be some complications arising from the presence of the Romanino painting on its walls. A sign of arrogance? Who knows?

Let’s turn to the case itself:

In 1941, the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini became concerned that the property of its nationals of Jewish ancestry was falling into the hands of the Vichy government so that the French government could liquidate it and pocket the proceeds of the sales. Mussolini’s diplomats in Vichy repeatedly petitioned the Pétain government to lay off the assets of its nationals and to allow Italy to initiate proceedings for repatriating Italian Jewish property back to the homeland. In other words, the Fascist message to Pétain was clear: don’t mess with our Jews.

The Gentili di Giuseppe family was among those listed whose confiscated assets should be repatriated to Italy. That did not happen.

Hence, the proof of confiscation is explicit since, one way or another, the Gentili di Giuseppe family’s belongings were targeted both by Vichy and by Fascist Italy.

Fast forward to the present:

In July 2010, I had the extraordinary pleasure of chatting informally with Italy’s State Attorney Maurizio Fiorilli, after a conference held in Amelia, Italy, regarding illicit cultural property. To be honest, I spotted him at a local restaurant where I was finishing up lunch. Fiorilli was seated nearby. I took a deep breath, introduced myself and requested the pleasure of asking several questions, which he agreed to do. At first, he spoke in Italian and a woman at his table translated his words into English. Soon, he switched to English once we discussed the Gentili case.

Paraphrasing his words, Fiorilli indicated that even if the Gentili di Giuseppe family was able to get its painting back—the Romanino!-- it had to remain in Italy, as cultural property.

Cultural property? Does that mean that a XVIth century Italian painting is treated like an antique vase dug up from Roman ruins? How does that happen? Cultural property applies to cultural objects and artifacts extracted from the earth, not to Holocaust-era cultural assets that were forcibly removed from the homes and businesses of Nazi and Fascist victims. In other words, Fiorilli was playing a dangerous game, using cultural property laws to prevent Holocaust victims from recovering their assets.

Could it be that Fiorilli considers the Romanino painting as part of Italy’s patrimony—patrimonio culturale, patrimoine culturel, cultural heritage? If that is the case, the Italian government is pre-empting the rights of individuals to recover what is rightfully theirs, by invoking abstract concepts of cultural heritage and the greater good of the nation.

Both arguments—cultural property and cultural heritage—are self-serving, opportunistic gambits to ignore individual rights to ownership of cultural assets. Hence, the Tallahassee case extends far beyond the restitution of an Italian Old Master painting to the rightful heirs of Gentili di Giuseppe. It brings into question the dubious practices of governments in preventing restitution of stolen cultural assets by invoking abstract and ill-defined concepts of cultural heritage and misusing notions that apply to antiquities by conflating them with Holocaust-era losses.

As far as we know, the Gentili di Giuseppe family has had a rough time dealing with American museums. The compromises that it was forced to accept with cultural institutions such as the Princeton Art Museum were not aimed at returning their property to them, but at negotiating financial settlements to allow those museums to maintain so-called good title to the Gentili property. ICE’s action might be the first step in a long process that might actually give the Gentili di Giuseppe heirs a taste of justice on American soil and maybe teach the Italian government a lesson or two about the Holocaust and restitution.

Princeton University Museum of Art
Source: Wikipedia

Maurizio Fiorilli's comments at the 2010 ARCA Conference in the Palazzo Petrignani in Amelia, Italy:

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part I 
Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 2010

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part II

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part III
Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 2010

Maurizio Fiorilli, ARCA 2010, Part IV
Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), 2010