11 January 2012

The “three graces” of art restitution

"The Graces of the Gardens of the Hesperides", Rubens, taken by the ERR
Source: Holocaust-Era Assets Portal, NARA, RG 111-SC-374665
Although they were not paragons of beauty by any Classical standard, Ardelia Hall, Evelyn Tucker, and Rose Valland, constitute a trinity of hard-nosed women who flew the standard of art restitution in the post-1945 era as high and as steadily as they possibly could with the bare means put at their disposal to do justice in their own special way.

Indeed, each one of them behaved in a unique way, faced with specific sets of challenges that on occasion may have seemed insurmountable to them. And yet, they persevered. Although Ardelia Hall and Evelyn Tucker left their respective duties with very mixed feelings, Rose Valland, in relative terms, fared far better and benefited from additional institutional support for her mission to recover items belonging to France and to individuals living in France at the time of the German occupation and the Vichy years. In true French style, Rose Valland was awarded some of the highest honors commensurate with engaging in feats of Resistance during the German occupation.

On the other hand, Ardelia Hall and Evelyn Tucker, the former at the US Department of State, the latter in the US zone of occupation in Austria, were given short shrift throughout their tenure in the US government and were forced to turn into one-woman armies with skeletal staff support in an all-male world. I emphasize this gender issue because it stands out as self-evident. The worlds of international diplomacy and Allied military occupation and civil administration were populated by men, while women, for the most part, served in auxiliary functions. Even the various Allied art recovery commissions established by France (Vaucher), Great Britain (Macmillan), and the United States (Roberts) were all-male casts of museum directors, art historians, curators, and civil servants.

While Ardelia Hall and Rose Valland were creatures of the prewar museum world, Evelyn Tucker was not. Ardelia Hall was a specialist in ancient China and began her museum career in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts before moving on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, from which she was tapped to serve in a small office of cultural affairs at the US Department of State in 1944. Rose Valland worked in a curatorial capacity in prewar Paris, and was referred to by a senior curator in France, as a “little mouse”[la petite souris du Louvre] at the Louvre, before she was thrust into the weird world of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) at the Jeu de Paume.  Her tenacity earned her many postwar stars as an unwitting observer of institutional plunder for four long years. Following the Liberation of France, she served at Baden-Baden in the French zone of occupation of Germany where she coordinated restitution operations on behalf of the French government.

In some strange way, based on a comparative reading of the correspondence between Ardelia Hall, Evelyn Tucker and Rose Valland, Ardelia appeared to be the one on whom they both relied for strength, inspiration, and support, especially Evelyn whose continual run-ins with the US military administration in Vienna and Salzburg and confrontations with the leadership of the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP) made her tasks all the more arduous. This might explain why Evelyn Tucker became increasingly an advocate of Austrian interests, sometimes setting her at odds even with official US restitution policy.

More will appear in these pages about Ardelia, Evelyn, and Rose. Suffice it to say, for now, that without their extraordinary displays of bravura and stubbornness, we would not be blessed today with hundreds of thousands of pages of invaluable information regarding thefts, investigations, and recoveries of countless cultural items purloined by the Nazis in Europe. In a corny way, I feel compelled to doff my invisible hat and say to them: thank you for sticking by your guns and handing over to us and future generations a priceless legacy of historical information documenting one of the most complex events of the last century.

Les trois muses. Fragment de décoration de la maison de Titus Dentatius Panthera à Pompéi, (54-68 ap.J.C.)
Source: Radio France Internationale (RFI) via Musée national d'archéologie de Naples