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”.