24 January 2016


by Marc Masurovsky

Transparency is the condition of being transparent.

Synonyms can be lucidity,  clearness,  translucence.

Transparency can be purity like the crystal clarity of the water.

Antonyms are murkiness and opacity

Decades ago, while in high school in Paris, my class visited a water purification plant run by the Compagnie Générale des Eaux (CGE), the people responsible for ensuring that potable water runs through the taps of Parisian homes, offices and businesses, park fountains, swimming pool intake pipes.   

As the CGE engineer blithely told us, Parisian water is 50 per cent chemicals, 50 per cent refuse (he actually used the word “merde” which made us all laugh). Nine steps of purification were required to transform the dark brown sludge that we saw turn into pristine-looking, “transparent”, clear as crystal, water. Quite a tour de force! We were all visibly, very impressed.

Is it possible to achieve the same result with the provenance of a work of art? If we compare raw, pre-treated, water flowing into Paris with the typical provenance that we find in museums, auction catalogues and gallery brochures, we could rightfully say that they “stink" much like the murky Seine water being processed by the CGE.

Do we have a process of filtration and purification much like the one put in place by the CGE, to “clean up”, to “purify”, to make the provenance “transparent”, “crystal clear”? Not really, but there has been some improvement over the past decade. However, the means allotted to purify the history of ownership of art objects are chronically lacking and, to a large extent, still elude us. Some say that the leadership of institutions in the art market view provenance research as a perk, a luxury, and merely an option.  Although viewed as a necessity by a growing number of museum professionals, auctioneers and even dealers and collectors, there is no significant movement to underwrite the cost of research. And why should there be since billions of euros' worth of art objects were traded last year without regard for provenance?

In the mean time, here are some examples of “murky” histories associated with objects which were randomly selected out of forthcoming sales organized by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the two largest global auction market power houses in the world. These examples are provided simply to show that there still is much work to be done and to provoke a discussion about what it would take to ensure that all art objects should be accompanied with a "clear" provenance. Or is that even possible?

1/ our first candidate is a15th century Italian Old Master drawing. The first item on the provenance dates to 1975 and there is an indication that the item was exhibited in London in 1953. Two gaps are obvious: between the year of its creation and the London exhibit of 1953 and between 1953 and the 1975 date. Hard to imagine how one fills up 400 years of history.  Less fanciful is how to fill the gap between the 1953 exhibit and the 1975 date.  The work is of Italian origin. At some point, it left Italy to parts unknown. Assuming that there are no collectors' markings on the back of this work on paper, one is left with little to go with. 

2/ Lot 21 of a forthcoming sale of Italian Old Masters at Christie’s New York, features a watercolor on vellum by Mauro Gandolfi, which was produced in the late 18th century. The first item in the provenance is a Max Perl sale in Berlin on 3 December 1936. Afterwards, the watercolor resurfaces in New York in 1989, at Colnaghi’s.

More than 200 years separate the time of creation of the Gandolfi item from the time of its sale in Berlin in 1936 by the Max Perl auction house in Berlin. The auction house is described as a “Jewish auction house” in Barbara Hoffman’s, “Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy and Practice,” [p. 186]. One might wonder how and why this work was on sale in Berlin three years after Hitler took power. Who put it up for sale? Was it, perchance, as a result of a “forced sale” or driven by dire economic necessity unrelated to acts of persecution? Indeed, for a forced sale label to be ascribed to any transaction after 1933, proof must exist that racial, political, or other forms of persecution lay at the root cause of the decision to sell.  

A number of works on paper and paintings sold through Max Perl in the mid-1930s became the subject of Holocaust claims decades later.

The Max Perl auction house operated on the edge of what was acceptable by Nazi esthetic and ideological standards regarding the type of art that could be sold in the Reich. As reported in Bernhard Fulda and Aya Solka’s “Max Pechstein, the Rise and Fall of German Expressionism” [p. 324), the Gestapo had raided the Max Perl auction house for selling “pornographic” works—a euphemism used to describe Expressionist and “degenerate” works of art. In that regard, James van Dyke in Franz Radziwill’s “the Contradictions of German art history, 1919-1945” [p. 220) argues that the Max Perl auction house was able to sell many works by Jewish artists unmolested by Nazi authorities.

With this simple check of secondary literature regarding Max Perl, one is entitled to ask the question: who owned this watercolor prior to the sale of 1936? As with most works on paper, and the price that they command on the market, there is little likelihood that the layers of opacity can be thinned out by lengthy research to reach some low level of clarity in the provenance. Murkiness prevails.

3/ At Sotheby’s, similar questions are ever present. A painting by Paul Signac dated 1904, Voiles dans la brume, Canal de la Giudecca, provides a tantalizing provenance which, although, close to complete, reveals its gaps.

To wit: the last pre-1940 owner listed on the provenance of this Signac work in the Sotheby's entry was Claude Roger-Marx, who had acquired this painting by 1922. The next reference to an owner dates to 1956. That owner's name was Alex Maguy, the founder of the Galerie de l’Elysée. 36 years elapsed between the Roger-Marx ownership and Maguy, a game of hopscotch which allows the reader to leapfrog over the German occupation of France (1940-1944). 

Sotheby’s is not sure about the 1956 date, it might have been earlier. A quick check of the Jeu de Paume/ERR database shows 35 works by Signac being plundered by the Nazis in German-occupied France, one of which belonged to Claude Roger-Marx. This work does not appear in the Roger-Marx restitution claim which can be read at the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at La Courneuve [the old citation for the Roger-Marx claim is RA 608]. We can infer therefrom that Roger-Marx sold the Signac to X…. prior to 1940. Hence, we can ask: who owned the Signac between Roger-Marx and Maguy? We are left in a historical, proto-genocidal haze, regarding the temporal interval between Roger-Marx and Alex Maguy. How many owner were there prior to Maguy? 1, 2, 3? 

A note on Alex Maguy: he stood in the periphery of the recycling of art looted from Jewish art collectors in wartime Paris. There are lingering suspicions about the inventory with which Maguy opened the Galerie de l’Elysée in 1955 on Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris.

In this brief overview, we have not achieved transparence in the provenance of the three aforementioned items. Was I unfair? I don't think so. They were selected as illustrations of a deep-seated, endemic, no, systemic and ethical problem that permeates our conception of culture, the production, consumption of art objects worldwide, and our desire to sustain or sever their links to the larger history of civil societies from which they sprang and through which they traveled in time and space.

Doubts will linger as to the complete history of these pieces.

You might ask yourselves: is there enough information out there to flesh out those provenances so that one can achieve crystal-clear clarity? Is that even possible?

Entretemps, the art market rolls on, buying, displaying, selling, and we are left to expose its obvious flaws, at worst, for posterity.