08 November 2011

Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, Easton, PA: a debriefing (II)

Day 2: October 27, 2011

Lafayette College
Source: Lafayette College via Flickr
Lafayette College is a small architectural jewel nestled in a set of rolling hills not too far from Allentown. Every building on its tightly designed campus does not conform to any cookie-cutter design. In some sense, a student of architecture would have a genuine ‘field day’ at Lafayette College.

Tiffany Windows
Source: Lafayette College Art Collection
The college is home to several cultural institutions which are always enjoyable to visit because their contents give the visitor an insight into the tastes, proclivities and priorities of the curators, the art historians and the administration. One of the biggest surprises can be found at the College Library in the form of two large-size Tiffany stained glass windows that adorn different parts of the library and project at different times of the day a strange array of hues onto those who read and loll in their midst.

It is also in the Library where some of the lectures were staged on Day Two of the Conference. The room where the talks occurred was framed in a glass-encased corner of the Library which gave the proceedings a natural openness filled with the filtered light of a typical October day, not enough to compete with artificial lighting, not enough to prevent you from viewing projected Powerpoint slides.

The room was full of undergraduate students, faculty, staff, and out-of-town visitors, which lent the presentations a well-earned level of attention that one can only find on college campuses. This is a good time to take a break and muse on this intriguing phenomenon. Why do so many people who have never heard of “looted art,” “cultural plunder”, “degenerate art”, “restitution”, “Washington Principles,” “provenance research,” flock to these events? Granted, interested professors flog their flock into attending these presentations on pain of reprisals at exam time (joke!). However, the phenomenon is widespread and unexplainable when contrasted by the sheer indifference displayed by policymakers, so-called art experts, even historians themselves. It’s as if one senses a thirst to know more, to learn, to find out the details, to search for meaning, a thirst that is left unquenched by the strictures and preconceptions of academicians and professionals alike. So much for the soap box.

The presentations went well. Victoria Reed of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts provided a well-thought out description of how the MFA has treated claims for works and objects in its collections in recent years. A major cultural institution better known for its irascible refusal to restitute anything, especially antiquities, the MFA has gradually adapted to the complexities of art restitution and the circumstances under which objects might have changed hands illegally owing to racial and other forms of persecutions against their rightful owners.  Although there is a long way to go still, the MFA has demonstrated that, when called upon to make the difficult choice to restitute a claimed object, thereby de-accessioning it, the benefit of the doubt is being given to the claimant, thereby reversing a decades-old tradition of invoking traditional legal defenses to forestall restitution.

"Portrait of a Man And Woman In An Interior" by Eglon van der Neer
Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The two keynote lectures of Day Two were scheduled for the evening in a large amphitheater-like room where the “Rape of Europa” had been screened the previous evening. The first keynote was delivered by Jonathan Petropoulos, who teaches at Claremont-McKenna College in California, followed by Lucian Simmons, who heads up global restitution efforts at Sotheby’s in New York.

Jonathan Petropoulos, Phd
Source: Claremont McKenna College
The two presentations were remarkable for one reason only: they were both anchored in personal experience. Jonathan Petropoulos chose to regale the audience on how his interest in Nazi cultural policy morphed into a lifelong quest to come to grips with Nazi looted art and to “do the right thing” for claimants. On the other hand, Simmons unapologetically built on the fact that he was at Sotheby’s to optimize returns for “the house”—it is a for-profit operation after all!—and if art restitution can serve the interests of his employers while doing some good along the way, so much the better for it. Sure!

For those who love redemption stories, Petropoulos’ presentation was a case in point. Charming, articulate, deeply versed in his field, entertaining at times, the tall, soft-spoken professor from Claremont McKenna put forth the image of an honest do-gooder who, in the course of his crusade to get to the bottom of the looted art problematic, got in way over his head at times, risking his professional career, his reputation and, god forbid, even the safety of his family! No comment…well, yes, there will be comments, but not what you might expect.

Aside from being well-published, Jonathan Petropoulos came to prominence in the budding world of restitution of Nazi loot when, in the late 1990s, he stumbled on evidence that a painting by Claude Monet on loan at a museum in Boston had been pilfered in Paris by local agents of Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. That particular painting once belonged to the legendary Parisian Jewish art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. The painting was returned to the Rosenberg heirs, all was well and Jonathan was now a player in the art restitution field.Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (1903)

We bumped into each other while serving as directors of research at the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets (PCHA) in 1999 and 2000. While I focused on looted gold, Petropoulos took on the charge of investigating looted art. The final report of the PCHA speaks volumes (a thin one, to be honest) on its overall accomplishments. I will leave it at that.

"Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (1903)" by Camille Pissarro
Source: Artinfo
Years later, Petropoulos’ name and fortunes became indelibly linked, by his own making, to a notorious Nazi war criminal, master plunderer SS Captain Bruno Lohse, deputy commander of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) operation in German-occupied Paris, and, for a short time, actual head and master coordinator of anti-Jewish cultural plunder in German-occupied France, before his retreat to Germany in the summer of 1944, his brief incarceration, trial and conviction by a French military court (very light sentence), before becoming a very successful art dealer in … you guessed it!.... “degenerate art” and Impressionists from his luxury apartment in Munich. His business operations extended mainly to Switzerland and Lichtenstein. In short, Petropoulos had befriended Lohse and maintained a decade-long relationship with the former war criminal until Lohse’s death in 2007. The public perception of Petropoulos and Lohse centered on a complicated attempt at restituting a famed painting by Claude Pissarro (Quai Malaquais), the property of the Bermann-Fischer publishing fortune and the subject of a forced sale in Vienna before ending up in Lohse’s private collection. The claims and counterclaims are ugly and should be the subject of a separate article. Suffice it to say that the painting was finally sold at Christie’s in 2009.

Petropoulos came out of his keynote speech as a selfless crusader for the cause of claimants seeking to recover looted art. Someone in the audience asked him: “Why do you do it?” He replied that this is his life’s work and he must. Sigh!

Lucian Simmons
Source: Sotheby's
Lucian Simmons is a character. Witty, refreshingly light on his feet, impeccably-dressed, he cuts a very appealing figure while describing in a most understated way (oh! So British!!) his daily schedule busy brokering restitutions, recoveries, sales of recovered items, fending off Russian pseudo-mafiosi-like characters, while babysitting elderly women in upstate New York, all in a heartbeat, seven days a week. And, of course, in the midst of all of this, his Christmas days are routinely disrupted by restitution crises. Oy gevalt! Who would have known?! The trouble is that Lucian does very well for the house with the trade in recovered stolen cultural property. Trouble, I say? Well, yes, it is troublesome to think that one can earn so much money off of historically-centered cultural larceny with genocide and persecution as its moral backdrop, layered by failed and flawed recoveries in the postwar world, complicated by supposedly bona fide acquisitions which would transform current possessors into victims on par with Nazi victims! Well, yes, I have a problem with this, but that’s just me.

Restitution? How does one broker a restitution while working at Sotheby’s? More often than not, it is the result of a complex discussion between the consigner, the claimant, and “the house.” The goal is the sale. The outcome: who will profit from it? This is referred to as restitution. I call it a financial settlement that upholds the rights of the current possessor. And Lucian is a master at this craft. Not to fault him for it, but one must admit that it is a skewed vision of the overall framework that informs the global debate on cultural plunder and its legal and ethical consequences at the point of sale.

Nevertheless, after a hard day at the office, Simmons finds a way of trumpeting the positives of his heady job, emphasizing that good things come of these intersections with history.

Needless to say, one can take only so much from self-scripted redemption to unabashed optimization in the same evening. So much for the current state of affairs as pertains to Nazi looted art and current efforts at restituting plundered items to their rightful owners.