03 April 2019

A Nude by Moise Kisling

by Marc Masurovsky

"Nude," by Moise Kisling, 1918

On November 11, 2010, a “Nude” by Moïse Kisling from 1918, was offered for sale at Christie’s South Kensington in London, UK. The painting sold for less than the low estimate of 18,000 pounds, at 15000 pounds.  The provenance offered for the piece was brief but meaningful: “Mr. Laffaille, Frank Perls, Los Angeles, No. 2834.”

Then, it was sold in Warsaw on December 12, 2017, for nearly three times the amount realized in 2010 at Polswissart Auction house in Warsaw, Poland.

On April 6, 2019, the same painting is being offered with no provenance whatsoever for three times the selling price in 2010 at Sopocki Auction House, in Sopot, Poland.

A brief check into the history of the object merits pause. Thanks to the minimal Christie’s provenance (much better than the wall of silence surrounding the Polish auction houses), we can begin our little inquiry.

As is always the case with provenance information, one is faced with the inevitable “story weaving” that comes with didactic, fragmentary evidence being supplied to illustrate the history of an object. A bit like reconstructing the life or lives of an antiquity dug up from the earth and sold on the Western markets.

Mr. Laffaille

Mr. Laffaille may just be Gilbert Laffaille who was a small gallery owner in Nice, France. He must have been acquainted with numerous Jewish art dealers and collectors from Paris because he ended up providing safe harbor to some of their works during WWII. Amongst them were Hedwige Zak, René Gimpel and Max Kaganovitch, to name a few.

· A quick check of Mr. Laffaille’s restitution claim filed in 1945 with the Commission de Récupération Artistique (CRA) did not include any works by Kisling. Why should one bother checking restitution claims? The answer is obvious: it is to dispel any possibility that the item was in Laffaille’s hands and was removed from his possession by the Gestapo when it raided the vault where he kept the works entrusted to him by various Jewish art dealers.
The cover of Laffaille's restitution file

· A spot check of the “Répertoire des biens spoliés” confirmed that it was not a claimed object in the immediate postwar.

Frank Perls

Frank Perls was one of the more successful gallerists of Los Angeles stemming from the German Jewish emigration, Frank and his brother Klaus grew up in Paris, France, with their estranged parents, Hugo and Kathe. They lived on a street—rue de l’Abbaye—where Hedwig Zak also lived and maintained a gallery, Galerie Zak. Hence, a small world of Jewish art dealers and collectors nestled in a quiet corner of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the left bank of Paris. The Perls men left for the United States in the late 1930s. Once in New York, Frank and Klaus agreed to part ways professionally and Frank opened his own gallery in Los Angeles while Klaus remained in New York in charge of his gallery, the Perls Gallery.

Back to the Kisling work.

If Frank Perls acquired the painting from Laffaille, the transaction might have taken place in Paris before Perls’ exit to the US. If so, he took it with him or had it shipped; the transaction would then establish a direct connection between Laffaille and the Perls family. If Laffaille sold the Kisling to someone other than Perls who then sold it to Perls, that question is not likely to be answered unless someone consults the Frank Perls Gallery stock book. Fortunately, there is an inventory number included in the provenance which can serve as a reference point should one gain access to that ledger.

Hence, Kisling’s Nude from 1918 traveled long distances, crossed an ocean and a continent, not once but twice, before being sold off in London in 2010 to someone, most likely, of Polish extraction who then took the painting to Poland.  Its fate between Perls and the mysterious 21st century consignors is unknown, but so is the fate of countless other works of art. No one’s fault except the market’s obsession with omerta and its fundamental distate for sharing the history of objects with its audience and customers. According to the holy mantra of the art world, the less we know the better it is for the collectors, the dealers and the traders. Knowledge and information beget knowledge, information and, especially, questions. Who needs that?

Sources: RA 27 [Laffaille restitution file at the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in La Courneuve, France.]

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