22 October 2015

Frieze Art Fair: Purgatory or hell?

by Marc Masurovsky

To those of us who cringe at being initiated to the ways and means of today’s art world, there is no better confirmation of this steadfast reluctance to embrace the new creativity than spending a day or two at a modern art fair, and especially at Frieze Art Fair which closed its doors in London.

The setting for the fair: the gorgeous, regal estate of Regent’s Park.

The Frieze Art Fair qualified easily as a “Cour des Miracles” for the rich, the super-rich, the “I don’t know that I am so rich but who cares” crowd desperate to be seen and to ogle, a garish display of fashion mavens and their sycophants, less interested in art than they are in themselves and those around them who have come to fawn, croon and chuckle. In some sense, Frieze is analogous to the various iterations of Art Basel, Art Miami, Art this and Art that, whose regular subscribers treat these modern art orgies as one endless party because all of their friends go there, so why not they?

You might think of me as a boor who knows nothing about contemporary art and has no appreciation for what is “in” and what is “out” and what straddles the fence between dreck and stench. That would be somewhat unfair. I am not deaf to today’s art world; I simply do not understand its impenetrable dialects. Mea Culpa! In what feels like a generational swing away from taste and a “full on” embrace of a simulacrum of “art”, there is a growing feeling of despondency among those of us who do “enjoy” “art”, whatever that might be, and who are left wondering: “did we all miss something? Is it really true that we don’t understand what art is any longer?”

This is what it feels like to live on the periphery of the rarefied world of the Frieze Art Fair insiders. They make no attempt to explain, to reach out to us, ignoramini and peasants who cannot get “with the program”. Here were thousands of artists expressing themselves in a variety of media, seeking the attention of a correspondingly small group of art dealers, gallery owners, art critics, investors, museum curators and their bosses and patrons. If one lucks out and gets blessed with the opportunity to display one’s wares at a gallery space at Frieze, that is terrific. Keep in mind, though, that art has become more and more an opportunity to invest, either on a short or long bet (a cross between horse races and the stock market) depending on how long your fortunes last as a”flavor du jour”. This makes for an artificially palpitating existence for art dealers because they have to constantly search for the new talent, the new “goto” artist whom their investors can fawn over and on whom they dispense small fortunes that the artist—blessed she/he be-- never dreamed of before. The public has to wonder if those artists are actually talented or deserving of their attention. If you want to play the game, you have to nod your head and pretend that the talent is genuine and worthy of the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars or euros, or yen or rubles that are being spent by folks who have cash reserves deeper than the Mariana trench. These big spenders have been shaping the “art world” or rather “their art world” in a most aggressive fashion for the past several decades.

Some aficionadas of the art and fashion worlds whom I had the pleasure of meeting but will remain anonymous in these pages, had these comments to describe the fair: “an abyss”, “a sewer”, “garish” (used that word already), “numbing”.

Can anything be done to reshape the content of events like the Frieze Art Fair? Hardly because they constitute privileged hunting grounds and zones of esthetic extension and expression for the nouveaux riches of the planet.

On the other hand, at Frieze Masters, a good 14 minute clip on foot away from Frieze Art Fair, further alongside Regent’s Park, one could find some solace for old coots such as myself, whose eyes could rest—finally!---on some quality, on something that resonated—Dutch Old Masters, German Expressionists, Austrian Secessionists, antiquities, indigenous artifacts, British artists from the past 150 years, modern art (Dubuffet, Picasso, and others). Frieze Masters readjusted our senses, recalibrated our taste buds and saved us from that pocket of inanity and insanity known as Frieze Art Fair. From the Hell of Frieze Art Fair, we went to the Purgatory of Frieze Masters, where we could occasionally get a whiff of Heaven.

Of note:

Weiss Gallery: charming owner with whom I had the pleasure of dissing the French government’s outrageous seizure of a painting lent by Weiss to an exhibit in Paris only to find out that the painting had disappeared from a French museum—the Louvre, no less!—in 1818, not 1918, not 1938, and certainly not 1942!!. The end result was an abominable expression of State-sponsored cultural “cuissage”, during which a sovereign State exerted its right of preemption on an object that had vanished without a trace nearly two centuries ago. That, from a country which cannot --- still!---apprehend the magnitude of its own systemic failures surrounding the Vichy regime and the Nazi enemy that it aided and abetted.

Donald Ellis: interesting display of indigenous artifacts from Alaska, except that, in the United States, his gallery is better known for its ….uh!... displays and trade of Native American artifacts that might be considered by the surviving members of Western and Southwestern tribes as their sacred property. There was one example of their art “in the back room.” Nice…

De Jonckheere Gallery: wonderful Old Masters, mostly of the Dutch persuasion, and two paintings by Abel Grimmer representing specific months of the year. Abel Grimmer painted between the 1560s and 1590s three sets of these series of 12 depictions of biblical scenes representing each a month of the year. One of those sets was stolen from the Schloss brothers in central France in 1943. Not clear what the provenance was for those two charming renditions. One always has to keep a sharp eye open for fluctuations in the history of art objects.

One gallery had an extensive assortment of drawings by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. Nowadays, the presence of these artists’ works is sufficient to chill your blood as one can only imagine—where did they come from? Curiously one of the items—a Kokoschka drawing--had gone through the collection of Wolfgang Gurlitt, then based in Munich.

Another gallery displayed German Expressionist works, mostly woodcuts, drawings and watercolors. When I asked the gallery representative if any of the works had been deaccessioned from German museums, he did not miss a beat and replied that one of the Schmitt-Rottluff pieces had been restituted by a museum in Rostock in or around 2006.

And the gold medal goes to Johnny van Haeften who was kind enough to mention the full provenance of a painting by van der Heyden which had been plundered from the collection of Alexandrine de Rothschild either from her apartment in Paris or her estate in suburban Paris. Van Haeften carefully noted the role of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in the theft and the fact that the painting had been restituted after 1945. No one turned into a gremlin and transparency prevailed in the reporting of a full provenance which included the tumultuous incident known as “PLUNDER” that affected the history of this painting. A clear example of how small changes in reporting practices amongst art dealers can mean a world of difference in the upholding of strong ethical and moral principles as reflected in the explicit acknowledgment of an object’s history, no matter how twisted and racked by unfortunate events like war and genocide.

It was fitting to end this brief recounting of a long journey from hell to purgatory on a constructive note that should serve as an invitation to other dealers and collectors to follow van Haeften’s example which is to tell the full and unvarnished truth of an object, even on a label.

06 October 2015

A time to act...

Destruction at Palmyra
by Marc Masurovsky and Ori Z. Soltes

On September 28, 2015, at the United Nations, President Obama proposed to fight ISIS and other forms of “violent extremism” using a savant blend of targeted air strikes, ideas, jobs, and good governance. As if DAESH/ISIL cares one bit.
President Barack Obama at the United Nations, Sept. 2015

It’s hard to imagine how one can square those well-intentioned thoughts with the devastation that is reshaping forever the map of the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Jordan are but a few of the countries directly affected by the apocalyptic and sustained outbursts of violence unleashed upon them by militants from DAESH/ISIL.
ISIS zones of influence in Syria and Irak, 2015
Nearly as important is the eradication of cultural icons, described by every figure of international politics as “belonging to humanity.” Sites that have survived thousands of years of military conflicts, droughts, and societal mischief are now being razed by gangsters posing as religious fighters wishing to establish a pure version of their faith. This is not the place to comment on the merits of their plan, rather the consequences of this plan being implemented by means of the tools of our digital age combined with ruthless, genocidal violence. DAESH/ISIL has been able to recruit followers from one hundred different countries who are willing to give their lives to their cause. This is no small feat. 

Luckily, President Obama is no Neville Chamberlain, the famously appeasing British Prime Minister who wished the best of luck to Hitler in September 1938. His proposal to co-exist with Germany’s Chancellor proved to be at the expense of Europe writ large; the purpose of the appeasement of Germany was to keep Britannia intact and not to shed a drop of British blood, in the hopes that Hitler would be reasonable with a neighbor willing to declare itself a benign ally. We know how that story ended.

Chamberlain (left) and Hitler (right), 1938

Are we now facing the same predicament? While we take time to invest in ‘ideas, jobs and good governance,’ the entire Mediterranean region may be revamped by DAESH/ISIL and both its followers and those fleeing its clutches.

Since there is no international political will to send hundreds of thousands of troops to the Mideast to combat DAESH/ISIL, what can be done in the short- and mid-term to stanch the consequences of the genocide? How can we safeguard the artifacts and sites that embody thousands of years of history in what we habitually call “the cradle of civilization” while protecting the lives of those who live and coexist with them within that “cradle”?
Iconic sites in the "cradle of civilization"--Mesopotamia
World War II provides us with useful examples of responses and initiatives that were put into place to combat and defeat the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan—and their allies). If adapted to our current predicament, managed, staffed, and financed properly, these measures and initiatives could have a measurable deterring impact on the financial and intelligence networks of DAESH/ISIL, and stop the reaping of enormous sums that this horrific organization obtains in exchange for looted antiquities and precious objects.

1/ Economic warfare and countervailing strategies aimed at choking the financial, and commercial capacities of DAESH/ ISIL.

During WWII, the United States and the United Kingdom initiated or refined measures aimed at establishing or strengthening barriers to the Axis countries’ ability to trade and obtain cash and commodities needed to supply the Axis war machine:

a/ the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) in the U.S., as amended, prohibited all financial and commercial relations with anyone directly or indirectly associated with the Axis. Translated into terms relevant to 2015, the TWEA would likewise prohibit nationals from countries where the TWEA is enacted from entering into transactions with anyone directly or indirectly connected with DAESH/ISIL. Current measures in place must be strengthened to reflect the wartime intent of the TEA. 

b/ specific directives were passed in the U.S. (Treasury Directive 51072 in particular) which aimed to regulate the importation into the U.S. of any asset worth 5000 dollars or more (in 1940 dollars). The purpose was to regulate, if not prohibit, cultural and financial assets in order to prevent the recycling of loot in the US and its monetizing to the benefit of the Axis. Such directives can be enacted in the US, purposed to regulate and/or prohibit the importation of cultural objects from conflict areas. (The British government imposed similar restrictions and its Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW), together with the Exchequer and other departments became the locus of financial and commercial intelligence collection on the Axis for the duration of WWII).

With the help of Customs (today’s DHS), these objects would have to be accompanied with full documentation attesting to the objects’ geographic origins and the identity of the various owners in order to preempt the resale and/or display of these looted objects on US soil.

c/ the publication of a Proclaimed List (US)  (or Statutory List in the UK) of individuals who have done or are doing business directly or indirectly with the Axis powers. This list was meant to act as a deterrent and as reference for anyone wishing to transact with individuals who might be linked with “violent extremism.” Create such a list of individuals, companies and officials connected directly or indirectly with DAESH/ISIL.

2/ The implementation of trade and other barriers:
During World War II, the British government oversaw the imposition and enforcement of a naval blockade in the Atlantic Ocean.aimed at deterring traffic between Europe and Africa on the one hand and the Americas on the other that the Allies deemed of benefit to the Axis powers. Blockade enforcers boarded ships and inspected their goods, commandeered those ships to vetting stations, confiscated and sequestered suspicious cargo, worked with shipping companies to ferret out suspicious individuals and interdict dubious shipments from leaving European shipping points through a navy certification (navicert) program.

Blockade-like measures could be adapted to today's more complex international environment along land, sea and air routes to preempt plundered assets from reaching international markets around the world.

In that regard, as a more practical and enforceable measure, a 120-day renewable moratorium could be imposed on all transactions involving cultural, artistic and ritual objects with a direct provenance leading to the zones occupied by DAESH/ISIL, regardless of their “cultural significance” and if they have earned the coveted label of “national treasure.” (The new AAMD protocols on "safe harbor" for "conflict antiquities" reflect this extremely limited view of objects worth protecting).

Such a moratorium would prohibit all transactions outside of the conflict areas involving those objects, regardless of their purpose—trade or display. The moratorium could be established for a period of 120 days, and, if efficacious, could be renewed at will until no longer needed.

3/ Tightening up due diligence and documentation rules for cultural and artistic objects:

Cultural institutions, members of the art trade, individuals and/or corporate entities, have historically been lax when faced with the acquisition of rare and unique objects whose aesthetic and historical value might trump a defective provenance due to lack of documentation. Such laxity is rampant through the art world and, although some museums and auction houses have increased their vigilance, most are not operating at a level of diligence that meets the ethical smell test.

In order to preempt the entry of looted antiquities into private and public collections, documentation accompanying these objects must be considered a precondition to their sale and/or display in areas outside of the zones occupied by DAESH/ISIL. This is a critical measurable way of preventing a contaminated object from entering a collection or a display case.

4/ Military intervention to protect sites that we deem critical to humanity:

In order to put an end to the devastation wrought by individuals and organizations bent on reshaping the planet and its societies to suit their own narrow vision of life, one has to become somewhat selfless and recognize that some issues are worth the ultimate sacrifice, because of their larger significance.

Complacency and idle chatter are the enemy now. For every day that goes by where another international conference seats the “stakeholders” to debate endlessly about how to stop the onslaught, is another day of victories for DAESH/ISIL whose henchmen amuse themselves by destroying monuments, some as old as several millennia, that had stood unmolested since their creation.

DAESH/ISIL do not believe in dialogue. They can only be defeated with force. And so must it be. Does the international community have what it takes to “take them on”?

Let’s face facts: we cannot do away with extremism. It is here to stay, it has always been with us and will always be, as a virulent extension and manifestation of human nature.

Social and economic inequities, political and religious intolerance and persecution, all manners of discrimination based on creed, belief, cultural and linguistic background, sexual and other orientations, constitute the petri dish from which groups like DAESH/ISIL sprout and spread. The eradication of DAESH-like movements can only happen through a radical overhaul of how we globally conduct business and how we treat one another.

Until then, let’s consider the following as deterrent countermeasures to DAESH/ISIL-controlled trafficking in artistic, cultural and ritual objects extracted illegally from territories that this movement occupies and/or influences:

-economic warfare,

-regulation of the antiquities trade,

-publication of lists of individuals and companies known to do business directly and indirectly with DAESH/ISIL agents and representatives,

-beefing up import and export restrictions on poorly documented antiquities originating from zones held or influenced by DAESH/ISIL,

-120-day renewable moratorium on all trade of antiquities from conflict zones,

-ground-based, naval, and air blockades to preempt traffic of looted assets from DAESH/ISIL zones of occupation,

-strengthening of human and signal intelligence capacities,

-military protection of cultural sites “dear to humanity,”

-building broad coalitions around minimalist goals aimed at preempting the looting and plundering of lands under DAESH/ISIL occupation and containing the hydra towards a view to neutralize it and roll it back.

It is time to act.

04 October 2015

Legacy Reclaimed: A Review of Dina Gold's "Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin"

by Ori Z. Soltes

By now many books have appeared, focused on the voracious and systematic manner in which the Nazis despoiled their—particularly Jewish—victims of cultural property. Given the inherent aesthetic appeal (or in some cases, the inherent revulsion-producing affect) of works of art, such narratives not only capture the reader with relative ease even if they are barely well written, but they can lend themselves to cinematic representation, in both documentary and sometimes Hollywood-ized format. To name the most obvious of these: The Rape of Europa, The Monuments Men—the first a documentary (partly based on the seminal book penned by Linn Nicholas which bears that name) and the second a necessary (in making the public aware of something important of which it had been previously unaware) but horrifying rape of an essential story—and The Woman in Gold, which ended up in both formats on the silver screen.

Buildings? Blocks of stone and steel punctuated by glass rectangles? The story had better have some drama besides the shape of the doorways and contours of the windows and the writer had better have a good sense of how to convey that drama. So along comes Dina Gold’s Stolen Legacy, opening up the plunder and restitution discussion to a hefty chunk of real estate, and the book manages to do just that: keep one’s interest because there are many interesting elements to the story and because they are so effectively conveyed. This begins with the fact that a building, unlike a painting or drawing or even a sculpture, is not likely to be moved from one location to another, and the building in question ended up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in East Berlin, just a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie, waiting for that curtain to be torn down and for some family member to have the stamina and the skill to go toe-to-toe with the Germans to get the building back.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, Germany

Location in this case helps underscore the intrigue, and the author is adept at drawing the reader into the layers and levels of that intrigue. There are, however, four primary elements to this narrative beyond place that make it either interesting or important or both. First, the intrepid family member who battled the post-Communist German forces of reluctance and the author of the account of that battle are one and the same, so the story is a first-person memoir of the extraordinary effort required to succeed with this large (literally) restitution project. Within that memoir, second, is interwoven an intimate family history and thus a slice-of-life account of one among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish families decimated by the Nazis. In this case the family that had been exceedingly well off by the time the Nazis rolled in, had developed its wealth through the two-generation expenditure of cleverness and hard work of Heimann Wolff (1830-1913), the founder and his son, Victor (1858-1928), who internationalized the business—even managing to stave off the collapse endured by so many others as the Economic Depression hit at the end of the 1920s—only to have it all legally stolen through the manipulative forces contrived by the Nazi machine and its willing associates. (Victor had, mercifully, died before things began to churn slowly into the abyss).

The building at the center of he claim
Third, in order to make the nature of those forces extremely clear, Gold offers a very effective depiction of the larger context in which the events that swallowed significant chunks of the family and virtually all of its material assets were transpiring. Too often, students of this era, including those focused on the deprivation of cultural and other property by the Nazis, forget how masterfully insidious the Nazis were: how on the one hand their methods of deprivation—from rights of citizenship to rights to this or that sort of property to rights to live—were gradual enough and, at least early on, so often accompanied by falsely benign expression (not on the part of Hitler, mind you, but on the part of many of his minions), that the victims could not imagine that they were being victimized, or at least not imagine the endgame intention of that victimization.

On the other hand, the insidiousness was defined by rarely doing anything illegally (for the laws were constantly be adjusted in accordance with Nazi needs). Thus the ease with which so many Jews could be and were deceived regarding—could debate and deny—their intended ultimate fate is easy to forget through the rearview mirror of time. Gold's depiction of the gentle pace at which her family was deprived of everything is an essential part of her narrative. Nazism’s rise and development and swallowing up of the German consciousness and conscience, in broad terms and with regard to the specific effect of this on the Wolff family is laid out carefully and crisply.

There is in fact—this is part of the emotional drama that drives the story forward—a dynamic and poignant fleshiness within this insidious historical carapace where the Wolff family is concerned. One brother (Hermann, 1890-1974, Victor’s older son and the author’s grandfather) presciently and rather abruptly moves his family to Palestine before the full force of the storm hit in the aftermath of Hitler’s 1933 appointment as German Chancellor, but loses all his wealth in the Holy Land in a swindle achieved by fellow Jews, his marriage ultimately collapsing without the financial glue to hold it together. The other brother (Fritz, 1891-1943, the author’s uncle) stubbornly remains in Germany, the country that he loves so passionately and that his brother had served in the previous war, ultimately to be spat out by the Fatherland into the trash bin of Auschwitz and murdered there by Germany’s determined exterminationist technology.

Then—fourthly—of course, there is the account of how the author eventually came to take on the German state to retrieve the building built by her great-grandfather to house what was the most important fur business in Europe back in 1910—and ultimately succeeded. It was (and still is) in fact, a magnificent structure, both with regard to sheer size and with respect to the fine architectural detail imposed upon it by its highly regarded architect, Friedrich Kristeller. Indeed the building was featured in an article in the April, 1910 issue of the magazine, Berlin Architectural World. The fact that, a century later, it bore on its front facade, over the door, the reminder of who had commissioned the building, and that it was still commonly enough referred to as the Wolff Building adds a stunning curlicue to the historical narrative—of her family, of Berlin architecture, of the story of the Jews of Berlin, and the story of the Jews of Germany and Europe in general.

The building’s post-Wolff ownership narrative is overrun with wonderful ironies, such as the fact that when it was forced into sale (as opposed to merely being confiscated), its intended use was to house part of the army of architects and their associates commanded by Hitler’s own star architect, Albert Speer, so he would have sufficient lebensraum in which to redesign the Fuehrer's new Berlin. Specifically, it would house (and ultimately remained in these same hands until Gold came along sixty years later) pass into the hands of the German railroad transport authority’s building authority (Reichsbahnbaudirektion) that, under Speer’s leadership, was redesigning and expanding the city’s new stations and railroad lines. That is: this is the same institution whose trains so famously ran on schedule to destinations like Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz with their doomed human freight (including members of the author’s family) was now, in a later 1990s iteration, lodged in and in possession of the edifice when Dina Gold came knocking on the door to ask for the building back.

Or the fact that the Victoria Insurance Company that pressured the family into disposing of the building in 1936 at a forced-sale fraction of its value had been distinctly philosemitic—its CEO in 1932-5 was in fact a Jew, Emil Herzfelder—before the rise of Nazism. It became connected to the Nazis through its CEO, Kurt Hamann (1898-1981), an important member of the Party, as the politics of Germany metamorphosed. The VIC was one of the major insurers of the buildings on the grounds of the Auschwitz extermination camp! The company still flourishes, in offices in Duesseldorff, its wartime record effectively buried. Hamann lived on for decades after the war—and was (as of this writing, still is) honored by Germany’s important Mannheim University with research grants in the field of insurance science established in 1979 in his name as well as a Kurt Hamann prize for outstanding dissertation and diploma theses.

Dina Gold as a young woman and her grandmother
In the midst of and the aftermath of the bureaucratic struggle that followed in the decade and more after Ms. Gold first showed up at the Wolff building and announced her intention of seeing it restituted to her family, further complexities presented themselves, such as the questions deriving from the wills of the family members from the generation of the building's creation forward—complicated further by the range of interest and location (Israel, England/the United States) of the potential heirs. Adding further significance to the narrative is the account of the author's dogged quest to find out precisely what had been the fate of her uncle Fritz: was he indeed destroyed at Auschwitz and precisely when? The ostensively main story with its ultimate victory with regard to the building forms, in the long run, a backdrop to the more personal story of the endless effort to bring the family history to resolution.

In the end, there is no absolute resolution to this last quest, although the author comes as close as anyone can. There are, it turns out, more details still surfacing and more developments still taking shape as the book’s last pages are turned. Like the larger story of the Holocaust, there are yet other epilogues even after one thinks that the book is closed. This volume opens a whole chapter in the story of plunder and restitution, as a subset of the story of the Holocaust that is likely to offer significant further pages in the years to come.