30 January 2015

Sometimes It Takes a Village to Correct a Historical Wrong

Madonna and Child in a landscape
by Ori Z. Soltes

No two cases that deal with Nazi-plundered art are identical. There always seems to be some twist or turn to one situation that hasn't manifested itself in other situations. And what leads to rectification can be complicated and also sometimes surprising.

Back in 1999, HARP was made aware of a 1518 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder that was at the time (and remains) in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art. It appeared that the painting, a small, beautiful Madonna and Child in a Landscape, had been plundered from the collections of Phillip von Gomperz, a successful Jewish businessman from Vienna, Austria. His surviving heirs were, at the time of its discovery in North Carolina, two grand-nieces in their 80s, Marianne and Cornelia Hainisch, who were not Jewish--a reminder that this issue is not by any means always a simple Nazi-Jewish matter, since the Nazis plundered from others as well, but also since the vagaries of life can and sometimes did lead Jews after the Holocaust to abandon the faith that was the primary object of Nazi hostility.

One of the founders of HARP and a key figure within it, Willi Korte, did the exhaustive research that showed unequivocally the provenance chain of the painting, from Gomperz’ acquisition of it to March 10, 1938 when the Nazis officially arrived into Austria (the Anschluss) and the Gomperz family was forced to flee (Gomperz himself would survive until 1948, dying in Switzerland); from the 1940 Nazi confiscation of the Gomperz collection, including Cranach’s Madonna and Child, which was then acquired by Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna; to its appearance in the New York art market in the 1950s, where it was purchased by a California collector primarily of medieval German art, Marianne Khuner; to her passing on the painting to the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMofA) in 1964 on a long-term loan that, through her will, became an outright gift in 1984, at the time of her death.
Baldur von Schirach

One can find a brief resume of this chronology if one goes to the site, ArtThemis, operated by the Art-Law Centre at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. There are, however, several things missing from what is presented as the official account. If one references Emily Yellin’s February 4, 2000, NY Times article, as the ArtThemis website does, there are, not surprising, the same omissions. One absence is the far greater chronological detail that Willi Korte had provided than what is presented on the website. This is fair enough: the website is presumably designed to give a thumbnail summary of the case and not an exhaustive history of it. A second absence, however, is the lack of any reference to Mr. Korte at all. Aside from writing him out of history these two omissions also contribute to what is a fairly widespread failure to realize how tedious and time-consuming the tracking down of such a provenance history often is—and in this case, certainly was.
Willi Korte
There is another matter that is lost if one reads an account as limited as that on the ArtThemis website, or the NY Times article, both of which merely jump in their chronology to 1999 and credit the Commission for Art Recovery with sending a letter to the Director of the NCMofA. The letter is simply credited in the website, without comment, with “detailing evidence of the painting’s history... it also indicated the names of the two sisters” who were the claimants; the ArtThemis entry and the article present the Museum as simply deciding to investigate the provenance claim and the following year restituting the painting to the sisters who agreed, in gratitude, to sell the painting back to the museum at well below its market value.

What is missing are a number of key details, key players and key complications—aside from the enormous lacuna of credit to Willi Korte. The fact is that Korte himself could certainly not have induced the Museum to restitute the painting on his own. He turned to the NY Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) and its then-Associate Director, Monica Dugot, who corroborated Willi’s research and spearheaded the initial attempt to ask the Museum to consider the claim, with the hope that, as a government institution, albeit from another state, the HCPO might carry weight that would be more substantially felt by the Museum and its Director. For the fact is that, faced with letters from both CAR and HCPO, the Museum was recalcitrant about even entering into a discussion about the matter.

By that point, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) was also involved beyond Korte’s initial efforts. HARP wrote to the Museum Director, offering its expertise and assistance in coming to some resolution of this issue, and received a minimal response—that the matter was “being looked into” and that no help was needed. At that time HARP was also able to view correspondence between the North Carolina Governor and the Museum Director—for the Museum is, by definition, a state-governed institution. The governor made it clear that the Museum need not feel obliged to abide by the proposals taking shape in the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and that had also been articulated by the so-called Washington Principles—these came out of a December 1998 conference sponsored by the State Department that HARP was instrumental in helping to organize—with respect to provenance in general, and specifically as it pertains to art concerning which there might be suspicion that it had been plundered by the Nazis due to provenance holes between about 1930 and 1945.

HARP was also aware of another chain of correspondence. The Museum had galvanized key members of the Jewish community of Raleigh-Durham to write letters to the Hainisch sisters, telling them how important the painting was for the museum and specifically how it could be an important instrument for Holocaust education, with an augmentation of its label and a series of programs built around it. (That campaign was apparently carried out with complete unawareness that the sisters were not Jewish!)

With the encouragement to the NCMofA to ignore the threefold—HCPO, CAR and HARP—request, together with its own strategic pushback against responding effectively to that request, the Museum remained far from forthcoming. But, in the end, it did come to the very sort of agreement suggested at the end of the ArtThemis chronology. How? Both because the Museum Curator (as opposed to the Museum Director) came to see the importance of facing the claim head-on, and because another member of the HARP team, Janine Benton, knew a very active and interested reporter in North Carolina, and spoke to him. He in turn wrote a serious and excoriating article about the matter in the local Press.

It was, more than anything, the embarrassment that the Museum experienced as a consequence of the media discussion—and criticism—that built on that initial article that pushed the Director finally both to “investigate the claim” and ultimately to reach out to the Hainisch sisters through Monica Dugot. They, in their graciousness and their gratitude that the situation had not come to a legal confrontation, agreed to the terms that are now part of the historical record—and in the end did set an example to the American Museum community with regard to non-legal discussion/negotiations in the face of this sort of claim . A far cry, however, from the ArtThemis summary that refers to “the swift friendly settlement of this case was possible thanks to the Museum’s refusal to rebuff the restitution claim”—which summary is also found in the NY Times article. The painting remains in North Carolina. Its label presumably tells some of the story of its ownership, plunder and wanderings until it arrived into the Museum, and one might suppose that there are indeed education programs that use it as a starting point for a discussion of a range of Holocaust-related subjects, particularly appropriate to a location that has a fairly long history of racial, if not religious oppression.
North Carolina Museum of Art

There is an epilogue to this narrative that arrives at its denouement through the power of the Press and in this case the ability of the Press to shame a public institution into righting a wrong in spite of itself. Currently, an elderly French woman struggles to regain possession of a small Pissarro painting, stolen from her father by the Nazis—that has, through a chain of sales and purchases similar to those of the Gomperz Cranach in which, at least in the 1950s, the gallery that was doing the selling ignored the obvious clues regarding its Nazi-era provenance, and misled or outright lied to the American purchaser who, perhaps, asked a few too few questions—that ended up two decades ago in the hands of the Fred Jones Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Oklahoma. Its discovery there within the past two years by the claimant has led to an ugly battle. The President of OU apparently knows no shame, and even in the face of enormous adverse publicity, including vociferous excoriation on the part of state politicians, has refused to consider her claim.

What in the end will induce justice to arise in Oklahoma? That remains to be seen and is another story for another day with its own twists and turns. The outcome at this point is certainly not that of the outcome in North Carolina 15 years ago, in spite of the pressure of the Press—and in any case, no two of the many stories pertaining to Nazi-plundered art are identical.