30 December 2019

Sunflower oil for paintings

by Marc Masurovsky

Art is a commodity which can be traded like widgets. On January 17, 1944, a French company called “Compensex” [Compagnie commerciale d’exportation et de compensation] had the bright idea of proposing to the Vichy government an exchange of commodities to benefit Vichy France and the French export economy. Compensex was a subsidiary of the Banque Worms whose intricate intertwining financial and commercial interests with the French wartime economy and outlying investments in Axis-occupied Europe have been well-documented. [See in particular "Industriels et banquiers francais sous l'Occupation, by Annie Lacroix-Riz, Armand-Colin]

The exchange involved 200 tons of Hungarian sunflower oil worth about 12 million francs (1944 value) for an equivalent amount of paintings allegedly owned by the Galerie Charpentier in Paris, known for its intensive commercial activity during the German occupation of France. The works would be exported to Switzerland. They included paintings by Albert Lebourg, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and other well-known modernists. The French ministry responsible for supplies and agriculture [ravitaillement et agriculture] notified the Ministry of Finance of its support for the proposed importation of the sunflower oil. The question remained whether the 50 or so paintings would be allowed to leave France.

On January 28, 1944, the French Fine Arts Administration gave its conditional support to the project as long as it could review the list of paintings offered for export.

It is not known, pending further research, whether the exchange actually took place. But it is worth noting that Switzerland was the favored destination for the paintings, thus guaranteeing their absorption in the Swiss market.

At the exact same time, Bruno Lohse, deputy director of the ERR in France and Martin Fabiani, leading collaborationist art dealer in wartime Paris, had hatched an elaborate plot to sell 54 paintings, mostly executed by 19th and 20th century artists officially reviled by Nazi doctrine, which had been confiscated from Jewish collections in and around Paris. Those paintings allegedly were removed from the Jeu de Paume where they had been stored for further disposition.  The plot fell apart in February 1944 when Robert Scholz, administrative overseer of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) operations in occupied countries, personally intervened by traveling from Berlin to Paris to put a stop to what he perceived to be a barely disguised attempt by local officials to profit from confiscated Jewish cultural assets with the help of a notorious art dealer already implicated in the recycling of such property in France and abroad.

The moral of this story is that, once high-value cultural items are available for disposal following their misappropriation by State agents, their dispersal might be facilitated by the commercial and economic interests of the occupation forces and their local vassals, in this instance the German military administration as an extension of the Third Reich in France and the Vichy government and its complex relationship with financial institutions like the Banque Worms.

It is not clear whether Galerie Charpentier’s owners were aware of the Fabiani-Lohse arrangement, but their capacity to participate in complex commercial transactions with Vichy, the Germans and the so-called neutral countries is duly noted.

26 December 2019

"The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian" by Andrea del Castagno

by Marc Masurovsky

Stranger things have happened regarding works of art with no written pasts that end up in a world-class museum like New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this case, our story revolves around “The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” a 15th century Italian Old Master painting initially attributed to Andrea del Castagno but later pronounced to be by Francesco Botticini (di Giovanni). 

The New York Times article printed an article entitled “Florence seeking US held painting: Authorities want masterpiece owned by Metropolitan-Rome unlikely to act” about this painting’s weird odyssey on Sunday 27 June 1954. 

Story I: New York Times/Associated Press

After Benito Mussolini was deposed as the “Duce” of Fascist Italy, Marshal Badoglio brought Italy on the side of the Allies and declared war on Nazi Germany on October 13, 1943. Germany invaded Italy and Florence remained under German occupation from then until the early days of August 1944. The persecution of the Jews, initiated by Italian Fascists as of fall of 1938, intensified under German occupation. 243 Jews living in Florence were deported to the East. Fewer than 10 percent came back. Most Jews’ property was plundered and rarely returned after the war to survivors or the relatives of the victims.

During WWII, a painting by Andrea del Castagno was stored in an attic of a building in Florence as part of a larger stash of “hidden” art works. Were they actually hidden or just stored there? And to whom did they belong? Could it be that their owners were Jews persecuted by Fascists and Nazi occupiers?

Enter Luigi Albrighi, described as a “Florentine lawyer.” Soon after its discovery, this gentleman gained possession of the del Castagno and was able to secure an export license for sale abroad. It is unclear whether Mr. Albrighi was one of the “art dealers who discovered and removed” the painting from the attic where it was found. Albrighi told the Fascist authorities that the painting was “valueless” in order to get export papers for it, which is perhaps what got him into a heap of trouble later on.

The painting was later shipped to New York where it passed through the hands of Knoedler gallery which then sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1949 for a tidy sum considering that the painting was “valueless” at time of its exportation. This acquisition by a world-class museum triggered an investigation by Florentine authorities and the Italian Ministry of Culture, the former not understanding how a high-value work of art could have been exported “clandestinely” and “illegally.” After five years, the Italian government apparently refused a request for repatriation of the painting submitted by the Florentine authorities. Mr. Albrighi had even been arrested and, pleading ignorance as to the value of the painting, he was released. Case closed?

Story 2: the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Who was Luigi Albrighi?

According to numerous sources, Luigi Albrighi was a Milanese lawyer turned art dealer after World War I. He gained notoriety following the sale in 1930 to a British lord of a “Madonna with veil” attributed to Botticelli which ended up at the London-based Courtauld Institute. The painting in question, which earned Albrighi a lot of money, turned out to be an elaborate fake.
Albrighi, operating as “Galleria Luigi Albrighi” in Florence, was quite savvy about gaining access to high-quality Old Master works which he sold to noted collectors like Count Bonacossi Contini and to museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Apparently, he did business throughout the Fascist years. One of his close connections was Bernard Berenson.

The back of the painting bears an export stamp indicating that the permit to export the painting was granted by Fascist officials on July 22, 1944, barely three weeks before US troops liberated Florence from the German yoke at great material cost to the city. When did the painting actually reach the US? Art exports to the United States would resume in earnest after mid-1946 when wartime restrictions were lifted on imports of art to the United States. Had the painting been shipped right after the license was granted, it would have been subject to the Allied naval blockade and possible seizure by British naval blockade authorities.

Let’s take a closer look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s understanding of the del Castagno’s history.

The provenance reads as follows:

?conti De Larderel, Florence, by descent (until 1944);
?conte Giovanni Rasini, Milan;
[Jean Marchig and (?)Albrighi];
Cotton Trading (until 1947; sold for $75,000 to Pinakos and Knoedler);
[Pinakos, Inc. (Rudolf J. Heinemann), and Knoedler, New York, 1947–48, as by Andrea del Castagno; sold to MMA]

If read according to accepted conventions in provenance research, the published provenance establishes a continuous line of ownership involving distinguished families (de Larderel and Rasini) from Milan and Florence whose names are associated as owners of the “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” by Andrea del Castagno. Three question marks in front of each name presented as previous owners of the painting, suggest the possibility that they might not have come into possession of the painting. At some point after 1944, Albrighi acquired the painting together with Jean Marchig. They in turn sold it to what we presume is a corporate entity, “Cotton Trading” which held the painting until 1947. That entity then sold the painting to Pinakos, an import-export company established by Rudolph Heinemann exclusively for the purpose of buying and selling Old Master paintings and bringing them to market in New York through Knoedler’s. Pinakos then sold the painting to Knoedlers in 1947 and, two years later, the Met acquired it in 1949.

Story 3: the truth, whatever that is, is somewhere in the middle

The New York Times/Associated Press version of events as related to the American public on June 27, 1954, hints at an odd event which placed a painting without much value and hidden in an attic, discovered by art dealers, and transferred to a lawyer who turned out to be an art dealer of some (dis)repute, active throughout the Fascist era (not mentioned by the New York Times). The lawyer/dealer gets an export permit from local Fascists and, at some point, the painting leaves Italy and reaches the New York art market. The Italian government and regional authorities in Florence get all bothered about this export (not atypical for the Italian government when an Italian Old Master leaves its territory). The Metropolitan Museum of Art eliminates the attic story by establishing continuous ownership for the painting until it reaches Albrighi, unless…

Who is this Jean Marchig? His actual name is Giovanni Marchig, he worked as a restorer and, apparently, was in business with Albrighi. As an aside, Signor Morandotti, a Rome-based art dealer, had introduced Giovanni Marchig [Jean Marchig] in the early 1940s to Walther Andreas Hofer, Goering’s official art agent in German occupied territories. [Source: The ERR, Consolidated Interrogation Report #2, p. 105 RG 260 M1946 Reel 121.] Moreover, Marchig had sold other works through Hofer and intended for Goering and Hitler. After Florence was liberated, Marchig and Albrighi obtained permission in October 1944, from the American army to locate and inventory the collection of Bernard Berenson stranded in an abandoned villa near Florence. The inventory was drawn up on 23 October 1944. [MFAA Field reports 23 October 1944, Toscana region, RG 239 M1944 Reel 66].

More bizarre is the “sale” of the painting, Fascist export license in hand, to a “Cotton Trading Company.” No location provided for this British or Anglo-colonial sounding corporate entity. The closest company meeting this description was a “cotton trading” company established in 1938 by an Austrian Jew named Friedrich Unger and based in the Netherlands with outlets in France. No proof that it is the same one. A cotton trading business acquiring Italian Old Masters in the immediate post-war years? That is the kind of transaction that would have been made more than one Allied official bristle. Some people might venture to say that this cotton trading was just a window dressing operation, a “cloak”, to conceal transactions on the postwar European market.

The fact remains that this entity, according to the Met’s published provenance, sells the del Castagno to agents of the New York-based gallery, “Pinakos”, represented by Rudolf J. Heinemann, a still-enigmatic figure of the New York Old Masters world in whose honor a room full of Tiepolo paintings graces the walls of the Metropolitan Museum. Heinemann’s unusual access to high-quality Old Masters in wartorn Europe which he gingerly brings across the Atlantic throughout the late 1940s and 1950s for the benefit of Knoedlers and wealthy American collectors, has never been quite elucidated. Be that as it may, Pinakos acquired the del Castagno in 1947 and transferred it to Knoedler’s which sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in May 1949, no questions asked since the export papers were in order and the once “valueless” painting had suddenly earned its place in the sun as a “masterpiece.”

The Met dismissed the Italian request for repatriation of the del Castagno as “old news.” In later years, its experts challenged the del Castagno attribution and substituted in its place Francesco Botticini (di Giovanni) as the presumed author of the painting.

What was the whole kerfuffle about? And why was the painting stashed in an attic somewhere in Florence? Whose attic? By today’s standards, if we have any left, an Italian Old Master abandoned in the attic of a Florentine building evokes all sorts of images, mostly bad ones, like abandoned property belonging to Fascist/Nazi victims or, worse, loot set aside by the plunderers to be picked up at a “safe” time. The “loot” was in fact “discovered” by local art dealers. One way or another, there is too much to this story to simply be ignored and dismissed as “old news.”

Moreover the disconnect is nothing short of surreal between officials in Florence and their superiors in Rome over the legal status of the del Castagno and the circumstances of its exit from Italy. Since the export permit was issued by a Fascist official, did that weigh into the determination made by the Florentine authorities that the export had been conducted “clandestinely” and “illegally”? If so, what was their problem with Albrighi and Marchig? Were they symbolic of the deposed regime? If not, were they known as “dodgy” individuals on the local art market which explains the arrest and release of Albrighi?

And why does the Metropolitan Museum not see the discordance between the official narrative and its rendition of the provenance of the painting? All this to say that more work is needed to elucidate what really happened to this “valueless” work of art.