31 January 2015

Pieter Paul Rubens, “The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby”

The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby, Rubens
by Marc Masurovsky

What’s in a provenance? According to one saying, it is all in the eye of the beholder. Should it be? After all, there are those who believe, truly believe, that a provenance is optional and is a mere adornment for the art object being offered for sale, traded, loaned or otherwise donated. The art market has learned that an “interesting” provenance can enhance the value of the art object being offered up, especially if it has survived the vagaries of war and genocide.

Still, others think that a provenance is the closest thing to a legal document. Now, why would these “others” say such a thing? Well, for one thing, a provenance should give those who come to museums to view, who go to auction houses and galleries to acquire, some basic information about where the object came from, who the current owner is, who the previous owners were. Shouldn’t the provenance meet some or all of those requirements? And if so, how complete should it be? After all, we don’t want to give the wrong impression about an object, we surely don’t want to rewrite its history, we don’t want to lie about the true history of an object. Do we?

For the sake of the exercise, let’s use a painting by Pieter Paul Rubens, “The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby Erichthonius, 1615, an oil on panel, painted by the 17th master in 1615 or so we think.

The online art historical database of the world-renown “Rijksbureau V. Kunsthistorische Documentatie” (RKD), a fascinating softly interactive collection of information about Dutch paintings and their collectors, proves to be most useful and the departure point for our exercise.

According to the RKD, the provenance reads as follows:

Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Luzern, 1934-11-30, lot nr. 40 
niet verkocht (volgens veiling cat. 7-8 december 2011)
Hans W. Lange, Berlijn, Collection B., Vienna, 1938-11-18 - 1938-11-19, lot nr. 180
Lange, Hans W. (Berlijn) 1938-11-18, lot nr. 180 
, het betreft hier de gedwongen verkoop van de collectie van Victor Bloch

Lempertz (Keulen) 2006-11-18, afb. colour reproduction, lotnr. 1133 
, met opgave van herkomst en literatuur
Sotheby's (Londen (Engeland)) 2011-12-07 - 2011-12-08, afb. colour reproduction, lot nr. 198 
, met opgave van herkomst en literatuur;
Dorotheum (Wenen) 2012-04-18, afb. colour reproduction, lot nr. 606 .

private collection Colas de Marolles, Frankrijk
private collection Viktor Bloch, Wenen 1938 waarschijnlijk in 1934 niet verkocht. In 1938 in Berlijn verkocht als ' collectie B., niet-arische collectie', d.w.z. joods (zie Held 1980)
Particuliere collectie / Private collection 1938 - sinds de late jaren 1930 (volgens veilingcat. 7-8- december 2011)
Hans W. Lange, Berlin
Galerie Jean-François Heim, Parijs/Bazel 2014 - Shown at the European Fine Arts Fair, Maastricht, March 2014

The Lempertz auction house in Köln, Germany, which is a habitual reseller of Holocaust-era plundered art objects, provided the following information for the Rubens painting in its sales information on November 18, 2006:

Slg. Victor Bloch, Wien;
Auktion XVIII, Gilhofer u. Ranschburg, Luzern, 30.11.1934, Lot 40;
Auktion H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18./19.11.1938, Lot 180;
seit dem Ende der Dreißigerjahre in einer westdeutschen Privatsammlung.

The Sotheby’s auction house sold the painting on December 7, 2011. Its sales catalogue included the following information about the Rubens painting:

Dr. Victor Bloch, Vienna;
His sale, Lucerne, Gilhofer and Ranschburg, 30 November 1934, lot 40, where unsold;
His forced sale ("Collection B. Vienna"), Berlin, H.W. Lange, 18-19 November 1938, lot 180;
In the possession of the family of the present owner since the end of the 1930s.

It added: “This work is sold pursuant to a settlement agreement between the current owner and the heirs of Victor Bloch...At the time of the sale in 1938, this work was accompanied by the expertise of Max J. Friedländer and Gustav Glück.”

The Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, Austria, sold the Rubens painting on April 18, 2012 and disclosed no provenance information.

We know from the RKD provenance that the Rubens painting ended up with the gallery of Jean-François Heim in Basel, Switzerland. Mr. Heim’s gallery provided the following information online:

Colas de Marolles heraldic symbol
Colas de Marolles family Collection
Probably Van Schorrel Sale, Antwerp, 1774
Dr. Victor Bloch Collection, Vienna (as Peter Paul Rubens) Sale XVIII, Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Lucerne, 30/11/1934, lot 40
Sale H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18-19/11/1938, lot 180
From the end of the 1930s in a private collection in West Germany
Sale Lempertz, Cologne, 18/11/2006, lot 1133 (as Peter Paul Rubens)

To sum things up, as far as the extant literature allows us to conclude, the oldest owner to be identified for the 1615 painting by Rubens was a French collector by the name of Colas de Marolles who presumably acquired the painting in 1774 at the van Schorrel sale in Antwerp. Jean-François Heim is the only one who mentioned this XVIIIth century historical tidbit. The painting ended up in the collection of Dr. Victor Bloch, of Vienna, at an unknown date. Dr. Bloch tried to sell the painting on November 30, 1934 at Gilhofer and Ranschburg, in Lucerne, Switzerland, as lot No. 40. But the painting failed to find a buyer, a fact noted by Lempertz, Sotheby’s and Heim.

The Nazis annexed Austria in an Anchluss on March 10, 1938. Dr. Bloch, being of Jewish descent, was subject to anti-Jewish racial laws. The Hans W. Lange auction house in Berlin, Germany, a veteran of “Jew auctions”, the swift liquidation or “forced sale” of movable property belonging to persons of Jewish descent. The property of Dr. Bloch was listed in the Lange catalogue as non-aryan, a tip-off to the potential buyer that this sale was a fire sale. Lange sold the Rubens without the consent of Dr. Bloch, to an unknown buyer on November 18-19, 1938 as Lot No. 180, a fact noted by the RKD and Sotheby’s. The Lempertz auction house and Heim failed to indicate in their provenances for the Rubens painting the fact that the Bloch sale, a non-Aryan sale, a forced sale, occurred within the context of Nazi anti-Jewish policies of economic and racial persecution aimed at dispossessing all persons of Jewish descent of their property, movable and immovable. Anyone reading their provenances would have to assume that the sale at Lange was licit and the buyer who acquired the Rubens painting had obtained it in good faith despite the fact that the Lange sale was well-advertised as involving non-Aryan property, code for Jewish, code for persecuted, code for forced sale.

The Lempertz auction house sold the Rubens painting on November 18, 2006, misleading the acquiring public into believing that the painting had been sold licitly in good faith by Lange in November 1938. For 68 years, the Rubens painting was owned illegally. In other words, Lempertz passed bad title to the next possessor who thought that he/she was acquiring the painting in good faith. On December 7, 2011, Sotheby’s in London, UK, accepted the Rubens painting on consignment from the possessor who had acquired it at Lempertz. Since December 1998, the art world has had to take heed of the so-called Washington Principles, drafted and adopted at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets. These non-binding principles serve as an ethical and moral checkpoint for the art market and cultural institutions in their treatment of art objects that have been misappropriated between 1933 and 1945. These said institutions and players are advised to do their utmost to resolve ownership disputes pertaining to these plundered objects and to reach “fair and just solutions” with the victims of the thefts and the current possessors.

Sotheby’s indicated in its sales catalogue that a settlement agreement had been reached with the heirs of Victor Bloch, meaning that the sale was going to proceed and the family of Dr. Bloch was strongly advised to accept a certain sum of money to preserve title in the hands of the seller and to close their claim for the painting. The sale proceeded. The buyer at Sotheby’s sold the Rubens a year later at the Dorotheum in Vienna on April 8, 2012. Jean-François Heim’s gallery displayed the painting at the Maastricht Art fair in 2014.

This “provenance exercise” is meant to serve as a cautionary tale regarding how art market players interpret the history of ownership of an object being displayed or offered for sale. It also shows how gallery owners and auctioneers are apt to select facts about the history of an art object. In other words, the history of objects is (re)constructed to serve, no doubt, the interests of the house. The provenance ends up being an exercise much like docudramas and historical reenactments on television, where fact and fiction coexist and interlace to produce a new narrative that masks the harsh realities of history.