08 August 2018

A 1902 painting by Paul Signac

by Marc Masurovsky
Auxerre, le Canal, Juin 1902, by Paul Signac
reproduced by Artcurial

On December 2, 2013, a painting by Paul Signac, “Auxerre, le Canal, Juin 1902,” was auctioned at Artcurial in Paris, France. It fetched more than 600,000 euros.

Nothing special about this sale.

The provenance of the painting indicates that it had been offered for sale in Weimar in 1903, hence a year after it was painted. Then it remained in a “private collection” until it resurfaced nearly 100 years later at a sale at Artcurial Briest in 2002.

A gap in the history of a post-impressionist work stretching over one hundred years is always something to behold. It’s impossible to know where it went during all that time, but one thing is certain. This Signac work was produced in France, left for Weimar, remained in Germany for an unknown period of time, two world wars ensued before it reemerged in 2002. It fell completely out of sight since its exhibition history echoes this centennial gap.

And then, one finds the most innocuous information in far away archives that may or may not illuminate the history of a work. In this case, a document buried in an archive at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, amongst the papers of Theodore Heinrich, a Canadian-born American citizen trained as an art historian who became one of several hundred cultural advisors to the American army in the years following the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944-1945. He went on to run the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point in Bavaria, the temporary home for thousands of works of art belonging to German State museums, and to an even more spectacular number of Jewish ritual objects as well as a host of German private collections including a portion of the collection of Hildebrand Gurlitt.

Heinrich was a consummate art collector. In fact, no sooner had he arrived in liberated Paris on the heels of the US invading force that he began to amass what became a significant collection of works on paper spanning three hundred years from the 17th century to the 20th century. He fancied French, Italian, and German masters and cultivated relationships with booksellers and art dealers across Western Europe. During his five year stay as a US Army cultural advisor (so-called “Monuments Man”), Heinrich acquired several hundred works from private dealers in France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, regardless of the origin of the works, oblivious to their provenance in the aftermath of one of the worst acts of cultural plunder perpetrated by one nation-Nazi Germany--over those it conquered, annexed, occupied or was allied to.  Those works and many other items were auctioned off after his death in the early 1980s.

On July 25, 1949, Galerie Bremer, based in Berlin, Wilmersdorf, wrote to “Dr. Heinrichs”,  thinking that Theodore Heinrich was familiar with an “American committee” operating in the US Zone of occupation consisting of art dealers and museum officials from the United States who were interesting in “buying valuable paintings for American museums.”  No proof exists that such a committee ever existed, but there is ample evidence that representatives of the American art trade were busy trolling for business opportunities in liberated Germany.

One of the paintings offered by Galerie Bremer was signed by Paul Signac, and entitled “Kanal bei Auxerre, 1902”. That painting's measurements—46 x 57 cm—are very similar to those of the Signac sold at Artcurial in 2013—46 x 55 cm. If it is the same painting, we can deduce that it was consigned to a Berlin gallery in the immediate post-1945 period. How it got there, how long it remained in Germany, remains a mystery. The Signac catalogue raisonné apparently does not enhance our knowledge of this work's past history since it is cited in the 2013 Artcurial sale.