12 February 2013

Three Impressionist paintings, three (or rather two) destinies

On March 1, 1941, the Paris art dealership of Durand-Ruel ships to its German client, Mr. Wolfgang Krüger, three high-priced paintings by noted French Impressionists:

1/ “Les Meules, le matin” by Claude Pissarro, painted in 1899
Les meules, le matin, Claude Pissarro
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

2/ “Promenade sous bois”, by Auguste Renoir, painted in 1910
Promenade, sous-bois, Auguste Renoir
Source: Culture France

3/ “Noyers, plaine de Veneux-Madon,” by Alfred Sisley.
Noyers, plaine de Veneux-Madon, Alfred Sisley
Source: Culture France
While in Paris during the German occupation of France, Mr. Krüger, a Berlin-based businessman and avid art collector, enjoyed his stays at the Hotel Saint-James & Albany. He paid 385,000 Francs for the three Impressionist works.

Fate would have it that the Pissarro painting ends up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of a bequest in the name of an American scion and philanthropist, Douglas Dillon. The odd thing about the provenance of the Pissarro is the name of the person who ostensibly owned it prior to Durand-Ruel, to whom that person had sold it in early 1941. Funny time to sell Impressionist works of art. But, let’s not think the worst of this work. The Met should be innocent until proven otherwise. The name of that previous owner is Braunthed, who lived in Neuilly sur Seine, a very wealthy suburb of Paris, home, in the 1930s, to some of the wealthiest members of the Jewish community and especially to German Jewish refugees who had settled there after Hitler had come to power in Germany.
Until someone can clear up who “Braunthed” is, the mystery remains as to the circumstances under which “Braunthed” sold the Pissarro painting to Durand-Ruel eight months after the Nazis began to plunder Jewish collections in the Paris region. Moreover, no one has asked Durand-Ruel why it made it a habit of selling wonderful works of art to German industrialists, bankers, and aristocrats, during World War II. Perhaps, their client relationship dated back to the roaring twenties. Still, that's no excuse, is it?

The two other works suffered a less glamorous fate, despite the fact that they were purchased from Durand-Ruel by the same individual, Wolfgang Krüger, at the same time. Allied troops "captured" or "liberated" the one by Renoir and the other by Sisley, after the fall of the Third Reich.  Before being repatriated to France as of "unknown origin," they allegedly went through the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP).  At least, the Renoir painting--Promenade, sous-bois-- did, according to the French Ministry of Culture.  If so, there is no trace of it in the MCCP database produced by the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) under the supervision of Angelika Enderlein.  The so-called Munich number--7519--does not correspond to a painting by Renoir, but rather to a work by Panini.  Back to square one. 

 "Promenade, sous-bois" ended up at the Renoir House (Maison Renoir) in Cagnes-sur-Mer as MNR 207 where it keeps company to another ill-fated MNR painting by Renoir, “la Femme au puits”, also known as MNR 579, while the Sisley adorns the walls of a municipal museum in the birthplace of the "damned poet" Arthur Rimbaud, Charleville-MézièresWhy on earth did that small town receive the painting by Sisley? Political favor? Enriching local collections with stolen property? Who knows? In any event, the Sisley painting that once belonged to Mr. Krüger is now branded as MNR 209.

And so it goes.

Three paintings purchased from the same art dealership in Paris during Year Two (or Year 1.5, depending on how you count) of the Nazi occupation of France, ending up in two different nations, one ostensibly unfettered by the shackles of war while the two others remain in that purgatory called MNR. Why did the Pissarro not end up in the French Museum system as a MNR painting? According to the Metropolitan Museum's website, the first post-1945 owner of the Pissarro was Robert F. Woolworth, who then consigned the painting to the now-defunct Knoedler Gallery in New York.  Where did Mr. Woolworth obtain the Pissarro? From Mr. Wolfgang Krüger? or from yet someone else?

What made the Renoir and Sisley works fit that category despite the fact that they shared a common wartime fate? If anything, the Pissarro is far more suspect than the Renoir and the Sisley.