26 February 2016

Scenarios of discovery: claimants stumbling onto their missing objects

by Marc Masurovsky

I won’t name any names here, it’s better that way. But rest assured that the following four scenarios are based on real and actual events. Except for scenario #4, each located object led to a tedious, painfully lengthy recovery process which left everyone mentally, physically, and financially drained.

Before research can even start, the object has to be located. Simple logic.

There are many ways to trip over an object that once was part of your family but was lost to traumatic events beyond anyone’s control. The object was stolen, misappropriated, confiscated. No matter what the method of removal and loss, the end result was and is the same: illegal transfer of title resulting in theft.

More than a half century later, the memories fade, and knowledge among victims’ families of what was lost becomes ever fainter, except for a hard-core of individuals who, by dint of circumstance, fortune, and disposition, have nurtured their past memories of a forlorn period and pursued relentlessly over the decades the location of their treasured items, not to be confused with “treasures” as construed by art historians and museum curators.

Scenario #1: a man, his mother and his aunt walk into a museum. The aunt and mother are of a certain age since they survived the concurrent and overlapping traumas of war, foreign occupation and genocide. They reach a part of the museum that displays antique furniture and they both gasp. The son is unaware of the reasons for the gasp, except that he remembers his aunt as a rather dramatic woman prone to fits of exaggeration. Nevertheless, both his aunt and his mother cannot believe what they see: pieces of furniture which were in their childhood home. How could they recognize them so easily and distinctly? How could they be sure that they were the same items as the ones on which they had napped or relaxed? I marvel at the answer: they were upholstered with richly embroidered and hued lampa, one of the finest textile fabrics available, Its coloration unique and tailored to the customer’s exquisite, most often aristocratic taste. Their ancestor had run a successful upholstery and furniture business in Paris during the first third of the 20th century and used this particular “lampa” to upholster fine pieces of furniture from the Enlightenment period. Consider it his “signature.”

What to do? The family furniture was lost to machinations involving unscrupulous family members in league with Vichy collaborators who donated the misappropriated property to the museum where the aunt, the mother, and the son/nephew stumbled into one fine afternoon.

This occurrence is not common but neither is it rare.

Scenario #2: you are perusing a catalogue of impressionist works on display in an important American museum. You and your brother grew up with family stories of wealth, stature, culture, art, enjoyed by your relatives who perished in the Holocaust. Surviving family members kept documents, recounted to postwar Allied officials what had transpired and how their relatives had been harassed, forced to sell their belongings, and tricked into making a deal with the Nazis which cost them their lives. Decades have gone by. A new generation has reached adulthood, whose interest in the family history has never slackened, especially regarding their missing art objects. One of the brothers finds a photograph of one of their missing objects reproduced in a catalogue with the name of the current possessor and his location typed in the caption beneath the painting.

Scenario #3: You are invited to dinner with your better half at the home of someone with whom you have conducted business on an infrequent basis, but you are acquainted sufficiently well that you will call on one another if you happen to be in the other’s city. In this case, the claimant visited such a person, whom he knew was an art collector living in a neighboring country. As he and his wife settled down in the collector’s living room, they noticed that the walls were richly decorated with Impressionist works. Lo and behold! Two of their missing paintings, not one but two, were right there in plain sight. They had been searching for them for years. What does one do in this case? First, you rub your eyes, take another glass of whatever the other is having, and look again. The paintings are indeed the same. The last time that you saw them, they were being crated and shipped to a bank vault out of harm’s way in the south of France, in the hope that they could be recovered when the dust of invasion and occupation gave way to the cleansing of liberation. The enemy had forced the bank managers to open their safes and removed their contents. And here were parts of what had been lost. How the paintings made it across the border into this man’s apartment was a mystery. Worst of all was how to get the paintings back.

Scenario #4: it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon. You want to go to the local flea market and hunt for some bargains. Your pocketbook has enough disposable cash in it that you can afford to splurge a bit. You meander about the chaotically stocked stalls filled with bric a brac, an inordinate amount of “stuff”—metalware, platters, urns, ewers, paintings housed in heavy frames, stained drawings, and in the corner, you see a small wooden sculpture, its unusually cut grain and expressionist expression of a woman’s face feel very familiar to you but you have a hard time placing it. You ask to look at it more closely, the stall owner hands it to you. It’s small enough that it could fit into your backpack. Then, it dawns on you. “My aunt sculpted portraits in just this manner.” How? Was it really her work? The signature block was unmistakable. Her entire studio had been ransacked during the war, that war. She narrowly escaped to Switzerland, after having been tipped off by a neighbor, a well-known founder of bronze sculptures who had a close friend in the Paris police force. Hours after her escape, the gendarmes had come to her house to pick her up but she was not there. She had left behind several hundred wood sculpted portraits. After the Vichy police were done with her studio, nothing remained inside. In this case, the recovery of the missing object was instantaneous. The sculptress’ nephew acquired the found object on the spot, happy to be reunited with one of her missing “babies.”

In Scenario #1, a State museum holds the claimed furniture as its “inalienable” property. In Scenario #2, a case was filed against the billionaire who possessed the painting. The proceedings lasted for years and resulted in a settlement. In Scenario #3, by the time the claimant had decided to seek restitution in the country where he had seen the two paintings that belonged to his family, they were no longer in the possession of the art collector in whose living room they had been hanging. It took another half century to recover one of the two paintings, the other one is still missing.

In all three aforementioned scenarios, a significant amount of historical and archival research had to be performed involving family members, their attorneys, researchers hired by the family and their attorneys. Documents supporting their claims had to be extracted from archives both in the United States and in various European countries, just to prove dispossession and the illicit path borrowed by these misappropriated works.

in Scenarios #1, #2, and #3, the institutions and individuals holding the stolen works had never done any research and had performed no due diligence on those objects, preferring to adopt a “the less we know, the better it is” attitude towards the act of possession of an art object.

You should ask yourselves, you the reader, whether history could have taken a different turn had the current possessors of the stolen property had bothered to conduct some degree of research into the history of the works that they acquired and then spent fortunes trying to keep in their possession.

Disclaimer: if anyone reading this short piece recognizes their story and the facts are wrong, I take full responsibility for any errors or misinterpretations. I did my best to communicate the gist of the experience of discovery.