29 April 2015

The Art Dealer (L'Antiquaire), by François Margolin

by Marc Masurovsky

Why is it that history cannot be told factually on film? Is there something about the creative process that impels so-called artists in the film industry to distort historical facts and create alternative realities which serve only to skew our understanding of the deep subtleties and complexities that drove men and women to betray their kinsmen, their families and friends and business colleagues in times of extreme stress as during the German occupation of France from June 1940 to the fall of 1944?

Case in point: The Art Dealer by François Margolin, which came out in France earlier this year.
Anna Sigalevitch
Briefly put, the story revolves around a somewhat histrionic and passionate woman, Esther Stegman played by Anna Sigalevitch, is a journalist by day, who somehow forgets that she has a job, a husband, and a son. The distraction in her life is her family’s hidden past and her exponentially obsessive desire to KNOW is propelled by a painting, that her husband, Melchior, an auctioneer by trade, is asked to estimate for a possible sale. He makes the mistake of bringing it home to study and appraise it.

The painting is nothing exceptional. Melchior thinks it is. Two leopards basking in a half-sun, a painting allegedly produced by a French artist, Jacques-Laurent Agasse, a disciple of Vernet. Maybe it’s worth one hundred thousand euros. The current possessor is tickled at the news.
François Margolin
One has to wonder whether the movie would have had any legs if Melchior had not brought the painting home. But screenplays are what they are and we should defer to the creator’s best judgment. Sort of.

The Stegmans are a nice upper middle class French Jewish family deeply immersed in the mercantile aspect of the Paris art world, well-educated, well-brought up, and not particularly loquacious about the WWII era.

Simon Stegman,  Esther’s father, sees the painting. He literally has a flashback about the painting and is transported back decades. Esther wonders why her father would go blank and start daydreaming at the sight of this work.

Her desire to know, TO KNOW, gets the better of her. She demands from her husband who does hold down a high-pressured job, to do the research on the PROVENANCE of the painting. WHY? Well, because she wants him to and her father is acting weird. Ok. Well, if you were married to Esther, you would end up abiding by her wishes just to keep the peace at home, although Melchior pushes back somewhat.

As Esther presses her inquiry, she meets different family members. Her questions end up annoying them, a sign that they all have something to hide.

Her only “buddy” is an aging art dealer/collector, Claude Weinstein, who gives her a reel of film taken during the 1930s in Paris and elsewhere, where her grandparents are featured as adoring lovebirds, as well as their friend, a German art dealer, named Klaus Vogel. Handsome dude, blonde locks, beautiful facial features, quite the looker. In fact, everyone in that film is pretty.

As the story unfolds, we find out that Esther’s grandfather was shot by the Germans in late 1941. No one knows why. The family is mum, part of the hidden past. Her grandfather, Jean, had a substantial art collection at the time. Esther wants to know what happened to it. The Agasse painting turned out to be one of Jean’s paintings, a reality that Melchior will have to deal with when he auctions it.

Esther quickly makes a pest of herself both in governmental archives at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Quai d’Orsay, in lawyer’s offices, and at her father’s apartment, in which she breaks into (she didn’t secure his permission to go into his private files. That is known as trespassing).

Esther becomes more and more troubled both by the official silence that reigns among her relatives regarding the fate of her grandfather’s art collection and the evidence that she amasses about a malversation engineered by her great-uncle, Raoul, in collusion with this Klaus Vogel, to deprive her family of their inheritance.

That is the charge that she levels. Whether she proves it or not, is up for you—the audience—to figure out.

What is the reality?

The film is based on a true story involving the Seligmann family. It is in fact the brainchild of Jean Seligmann’s granddaughter, Sophie, who has spent the past decade trying to reconstruct painstakingly the fate of her grandfather’s collection, piece by piece. In real life, she is not a pest, she is not histrionic, she is--as anyone has to be—consumed with the quest, finding fragments of a story that no one wants to share with her in her search for truth, a historical truth that can shed light on her family's past. She is traumatized by the realization that one part of her family might have betrayed the other part. Her mission is admirable, one that has informed part of her adult life, shaped or reshaped her family life, her professional relationships, her friendships.

For every nugget that she finds, there are dozens of disappointments and perceived betrayals. But such is life.

Historical fallacies are strewn about the film’s dialogues like unpleasant throw-away lines which can be easily refuted if one takes the time to inform oneself. For instance, British citizens living in France during the German occupation were not safe, contrary to a central tenet of the film’s plot, which would have explained why one of the perpetrators of the embezzlement of Jean’s collection, was able to survive in relative ease because of his ties to Albion. Nonsense.

The Weinstein character is a veiled allusion to Georges Wildenstein and his son, Daniel, a well-known family of art dealers in Paris during the interwar years, accused by none other than Hector Feliciano of having collaborated with the Germans. Hector is an accomplished author who, in the mid-1990s, blew the lid over French amnesia concerning art looting in his landmark book, “The Lost Museum.”   In the film, Hector is cast under the alias of Hurtado, and is given a cameo role in Ms. Stegman’s quest for the truth. His promise to write a book about the Stegman saga is but a fiction since it is an artifice of the film. If anyone is writing about the family, it is Jean’s granddaughter. Why Weinstein/Wildenstein would have helped Esther is anyone’s guess.

The long and short of it is that Jean Seligmann was the heir to Jacques Seligmann, the patriarch art dealer, with galleries in Paris and New York., who died in 1934. He and his two brothers were mobilized like all other Frenchmen at the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939.  After France’s humiliating defeat, things got complicated. While Jean’s brothers left for the US, Jean decided to return to German-occupied Paris and reopen the family’s galleries at Place Vendôme. He pleade
Plaee Vendome, Paris
 for months with the German administration, to no avail. He sent his wife and children to safety in the unoccupied part of France, while he straightened things out in German Paris. By early 1941, it was clear that nothing good could come of this. The business was shuttered and plundered—more than 700 objects had disappeared from the family galleries, apartments and storage sites into German and French hands. The Seligmann gallery’s staff turned against Jean. He made several trips to Switzerland which did not go unnoticed by the most militant elements of the German military presence in Paris. Jean was questioned by German policemen in March 1941.  He stood accused of consorting with the enemy (the British and, for some reason, the Americans) and mounting a propaganda campaign against the Reich funded by the New York Seligmann interests. Very complex charges which earned Jean a stay in a Paris jail. From there, he was transferred in name only to the transit camp of Drancy in which he actually never set foot and was promptly executed at the Mont Valérien on December 15, 1941, by a German firing squad together with thirty other men of Jewish descent, all accused of terrorist acts against the Reich.

Jean Seligmann was the only Jewish art dealer executed during the German occupation of France. Other art dealers were deported to concentration camps like René Gimpel who died at Neuengamme in January 1945 Thousands of artists were either killed or deported. Although most of Jean’s paintings were never found, some have surfaced in French museums. Others are still floating about the free global art market. Jean’s granddaughter continues to look for the objects. Most of them have been identified, but not located.

One of the film’s final moments takes place in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. For those of you who want to see this film, this scene is plum embarrassing. I can just imagine how Jean’s granddaughter must have felt when she saw her likeness have a hissy fit in the middle of a funeral, Oops! I gave it away. Sorry.

What is there to learn from this film?

Art dealers were involved in despicable acts during World War II and stole from their friends for personal gains. They were never prosecuted. Close family and kinship ties, economic and professional interests have prevented these stories from surfacing, thus contributing to a massive distortion of how art dealers, collectors, museum officials and their pals in government offices and in the business community ordered, coordinated, or otherwise profited from acts of plunder during an act of genocide against men, women, and children, of Jewish descent in France.

Regardless, let’s end on a positive note.

If you can suspend disbelief, much as you have had to with films like “Woman in Gold” and—gasp!—the “Monuments Men,” you might feel slightly rewarded in seeing “The Art Dealer”.

23 April 2015

Two Soutines for sale have little to say for themselves

by Marc Masurovsky
Chaim Soutine

As the leading auction houses in New York and London prepare for a bonanza in art sales in May 2015, Sotheby’s is proposing two paintings by Chaim Soutine, the “bad boy” of Jewish artists from the School of Paris which was decimated during the Vichy years. one in New York and the other in London.


Soutine chose to stay in France against the advice of his artist and collector friends who urged him to escape. He eventually was forced into hiding with his non-Jewish mistress, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. In the summer and fall of 1940, the New pro-Nazi Order in Vichy had enacted anti-Jewish laws without prompting from the German occupiers. These laws made it very difficult for Soutine to function as it was for all other Jews living in German-occupied France. Soutine had developed a severe stomach ulcer which threatened to pop at any minute. He did not want to go to a local hospital or clinic for fear of being turned in as an “East European Jew” since that is all anyone would think of when treating him. Hiding out in a small village until mid-1943, Soutine’s ulcer finally burst, sending him into a tailspin. In their attempt to reach Paris in the summer of 1943, Soutine and Aurenche took endless detours which brought them into the Nazified French capital in early August 1943. By then, more than 40,000 Jews had already been deported from the Paris region to die at Auschwitz and Majdanek. A trip to Paris that should have taken not more than half a day took two days. Soutine died on an operating table at a Paris clinic on August 9, 1943.

Marie-Berthe Aurenche
Why go through these details? Well, for one, it is to explain that anything that Soutine painted during his period of self-imposed exile from Paris should make one think about how his paintings might have circulated in a market under close watch by Vichy and German censors on the lookout for anything “degenerate” or which did not conform with the new esthetic norms. Soutine definitely fit into the “degenerate” category. There were only two visible outlets for his works in Paris during the German occupation, the Louis Carré Gallery and the Castaing family. Mrs. Castaing was his chief promoter in France while Louis Carré opened its doors in 1941 and specialized in—of all things!—modern art.
Madeleine Castaing, courtesy WSJ

It is known that Soutine had taken umbrage with Mrs. Castaing and Louis Carré and demanded that his works not go to them anymore. This decision, he made at some point during his internal exile with Ms. Aurenche. We also know that his mistress did not necessarily abide by his wishes, especially after his death.

Landscape, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, circa 1939.
Landscape, by Chaim Soutine
Sotheby's London.

The published provenance for this work indicates that an Alfred Hecht once owned this “Landscape” in London before giving it the current possessor in 1991.

There are two questions to ask: was this “landscape” sent to Castaing and/or Louis Carré with or without Soutine’s consent? If not, what did Ms. Aurenche do with the painting and how did it go to London?

Alfred Hecht, if this is the same Alfred Hecht as the one in the provenance, officially became an art dealer in the British capital in 1947 before starting a successful art framing business which he is famous for. That tells us nothing about how Mr. Hecht came in the possession of this painting unless he had some access to the Paris art market either through intermediaries in London or through contacts in Paris galleries.
Tête de jeune fille, an oil on canvas, 34.9 x 31.4 cm.
Sotheby's New York
Tete de jeune fille, by Chaim Soutine

There is no date and place of creation. In fact, it is not even included in current catalogues raisonnés of Soutine’s works.

All we know is that Hilda (Bonnie) Weinstein came into possession of this painting in New York in the 1950s.

Using the same logic as with the “Landscape”, we are left with even less to go by. Again, nothing  nefarious here, but we are in the 21st century, Chaim Soutine died in August 1943, his works were an acquired taste especially in the United States, with the exception of Alfred Barnes and dealers like Carroll Carstairs and, to a lesser extent, Frank and Klaus Perls, in New York. So, how difficult is it to find out how this painting left France? And when? If Ms. Weinstein acquired it in the 1950s, from whom? How long had the painting been in the United States? Who were the previous owners in France?

These are some of the typical questions that you should ask at the risk of being a pest. They do not preclude the sales from taking place. In fact, these two Soutine paintings will likely sell and fetch a decent price. But we should ask ourselves why it is that we do not want to learn more about these works of art, in light of the troubled history of the artist and his times.

 We are constantly asked to accept good faith from everyone. That is not to say that these paintings possess a dubious history. However, the absence of a clear provenance and the circumstances surrounding the way in which Soutine paintings were dissipated as of 1939-1940 beg for some introspection and critical scrutiny, now and forever.

Kafka meets Gurlitt

by Marc Masurovsky

It’s fair to say that, ever since the revelation of the existence of the Cornelius Gurlitt collection in November 2013, the German federal authorities, the Bavarian authorities, the police, local prosecutors, cultural institutions in Munich and Berlin, and eventually, members of the “concerned” international community on matters of restitution of art objects looted between 1933 and 1945---let's not forget the role of the press, both German and “foreign” and the newest kid on the block, the Kunstmuseum in Bern—all of these elements thrown into a gigantic bucket have produced nothing short of a Kafkaesque exercise which has not exactly yielded as much as one would have hoped for, namely "transparency" or less opacity, honesty, justice, and, more importantly, tangible research findings.

What was supposed to have been a straightforward process involving research into the histories of the Gurlitt objects, has turned into a severe entanglement of conflicting interests, inept handling of the public and the research process itself, bureaucratic indifference and—some have said—hostility toward those the families seeking restitution of their property currently in the Gurlitt collection.

As of today, there are at least three active claims that are awaiting the inevitable outcome—the physical return of the paintings: the “Seated Woman” by Henri Matisse, “Two Riders on a Beach” by Max Liebermann, and the 'View of the Pont-Neuf," by Camille Pissarro.

Although all parties involved in these delicate negotiations have apparently sensed that the end of the process is near, a new layer of incomprehensible procedural complication has delayed the return of these paintings to their rightful owners.

Indeed, in a pattern that closely resembles past tactics used by the French government to hamper the claims process and make it horribly difficult for claimants to gain access to their own documents sitting in government archives, it appears that every living Gurlitt relative must sign off on the release of the three paintings to their rightful owners.

If you didn’t tear your hair out by now, please feel free to do so.

It would be wise and humane on the part of the German government to intercede, fast-track this already laborious process and return the paintings without further ado. Otherwise more scorn and contempt will be heaped onto their heads.

Unfortunately, the world is a complex place in which to live and co-exist. We do have long memories, which continue to be stirred up in great part by the shadow of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, the Second World War and their legacies on the postwar world. Even though Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to individuals and nations for the calamities that the Reich wrought on the people of Europe, nothing justifies the present state of circumstances.

We have to ask:

What does it take to return three paintings to their rightful owners for which the historical evidence is overwhelming in favor of the claimants?

21 April 2015

The illusion of numbers

by Marc Masurovsky

Ever since WWII ended, there have been a flurry of numbers thrown about to give a sense of the scope of the destruction of infrastructure and loss of life and property across Europe, with very little focus, by the way, on the Far East.

Still, this is what we commonly work with, lest you disagree:

-1/3 of Europe’s infrastructure bombed out of usefulness, including roads , railroads and bridges;

-at least 200 cities completely destroyed;

-close to 2000 towns or ‘shtetls’ razed from the face of the Earth where Jews accounted for most of the residential population;

Body counts:

Genocide of six(6) million Jewish men, women and children, at least two thirds of whom died in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Mass murder of another five (5) million non-Jewish men, women, and children in camps, prisons, and other areas of confinement across continental Europe.

Perhaps as many as 40 million men, women, and children belonging to all groups, nationalities, ethnicities, and faiths across continental Europe, killed in the crossfire of “total war”.

Numbers games are hellatious exercises. They are numbing. They tend to neutralize our capacity to understand our propensity to kill. But there it is.


A bit more difficult to assess.

We should state, from the outset, that the victorious Allies devoted most of their energy in assessing the volume of financial assets that were looted by the Nazis in order to gain an idea of what was lost so as to come up with a reasonable/unreasonable reparations formula enshrined in the Paris Reparations Agreement of 1946 and in many more international agreements resulting from bilateral, multilateral talks and often complex discussions involving the representatives of Jewish communities in Europe and those survivors who sought refuge in the Americas and elsewhere.  Bank accounts, insurance policies, monetary and non-monetary gold and silver, precious stones, stocks, bonds, patents, trademarks--all of these instruments became subject to careful audits and assessments by the Allies. But we can't get into this right now.

The victorious Allied armies and the governments of liberated nations failed to conduct official audits of their cultural losses. Hence anyone today who professes to know how many paintings are still missing SHOULD NOT BE BELIEVED. There are no reliable sources of information to confirm or deny those assertions. One latest example is the final minute of “Woman in Gold”, a film by Simon Curtis, chronicling the losses suffered by the Bloch-Bauer family in Vienna at the hands of the Nazis in 1938 and 1939, and the (successful) attempt of their surviving heiress, Maria Altmann, to recover what became priceless paintings by Gustav Klimt hanging at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. In the final minute, one can read rather dramatically that 120,000 works of art are still missing which were looted during WWII.

Who came up with that figure? We don’t know. But it is a gross perversion of the truth and the historical reality.

Back in December 1998, on the occasion of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets, the World Jewish Congress fed the delegates a similar figure then—125,000 paintings. PAINTINGS. Not drawings, not sketches, not furniture, not sculptures, PAINTINGS. Who came up with that? How did the WJC, in all of its infinite wisdom, arrive at such a number? No explanations given.

Then, another figure was bandied up in the following years, perhaps out of embarrassment that the previous figure of 125,000 was too low. 600,000 works of art were still missing. Now, that was a meaty number, indicative of a much larger problem. But no one cared to define what a work of art was—and is. Still, 600,000 stuck in the popular imagination, repeated effortlessly by pundits and journalists both in North America and in Europe. As if repeating the figure would make it accurate.

In sum, we have no idea how many paintings, drawings, sketches, gouaches, engravings, sculptures, furniture pieces, netsukes, pendants, candelabras, buddhas, decorative plates, murals, frescoes, tapestries, wall hangings, rugs, rings, earrings, necklaces, and other decorative objects, let’s not forget antiquities from every part of the Ancient World on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean,

Let’s not forget ritual objects from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other faiths and religions, were stolen, many of which were melted down (those made out of gold and silver) to produce ingots that were then deposited at the Reichsbank.

We just don’t know. But 15 to 20 million objects sounds just about right.