22 December 2021

Review: Alas Another Tale of French Antisemitism and Cultural Property

 By Ori Z Soltes

Among the myriad angles from which one finds an expanding literature that considers the Nazi plunder of cultural property is that which places emphasis on some of the specifics of how a given Jewish family, or series of Jewish families, had hoped and believed that they were solidly embedded within the culture and community that ultimately discarded them as eternal foreigners when the SS knocked at the national door. The Austrians famously demonstrated this ugly truth in the immediate aftermath of the March 1938 Nazi Anschluss. So, too the Vichy government: “Free France”—except to the Jewish children and adults that the government and much (not all) of its population so easily (a better word would be “eagerly”) helped deport to Auschwitz and similar destinations. Such ease and eagerness can only have resonated from a history of gut-level Jew-hatred of long duration.

James McAuley’s deeply researched and elegantly written The House of Fragile Things plunges into the expansive efforts on the part of a key group of successful Jewish families in nineteenth-century France to shape their place within French cultural identity. These efforts played out against a backdrop of relentless antisemitism and the inability of key mouthpieces for France’s sense of self to accept Jews—any Jews, regardless of what they contributed to the national ethos—as truly French, in the century since the French Revolution and its declarations of acceptance.

McAuley explores families—the Rothschilds, Ephrussis, Reinachs, Camondos, Cahen d’Anvers, et al—and the extraordinary art and artefact collections that they amassed, the opulent homes that they created as settings for those collections, and their eventual deeding of such structures and their contents to their beloved France. On the other, he recounts the commentaries by renowned and vicious critics like the Goncourt brothers and above all Edouard Drumont—the “Pope of antisemitism”—capable only of expressing contempt for these individuals whose lavish and expansive dinner parties they frequently enjoyed.

McAuley’s text is not simply focused on dueling sensibilities. He provides an astute and perceptive analysis of each Jewish family and its key figures, and reflects on how we ultimately know so little about them beyond their possessions. His account resonates with an appreciation of the paradoxes defining their interweave into a multi-colored if flawed tapestry—and the psychological issues that motivated them, whether escapism (e.g., Moïse de Camondo), profound loss (the Reinach and Camondo deaths in military service during World War I), or gender (e.g., Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild); whether rooted in the collapse of relational certainties (the sense, for Moïse de Camondo, of losing control of familial, communal, and national situations around him); or in self-inflicted disasters that provided critics with fuel for their antisemitic screeds (the Reinachs and the Panama Canal scandal or the Ephrussis and the Alfassa Affair). 

Above all, he delineates their struggle to present themselves as champions of France and the 1789 Revolution’s assertions regarding universalism—and thus of the unequivocal compatibility of being French and being Jewish—against the diverse failures of their beloved patrie to live up to those assertions. The narrative threads its way through the tapestry of fragile things to the culminating catastrophe for these and virtually every Jewish family within France and across Europe: the Holocaust.

There is double irony in the fact that in 1935, two of the major cultural donations to France—18th-century-styled villas filled with 18th-century objects, one left in his will by Moïse de Camondo and the other donated by his brother-in-law, Charles Cahen d’Anvers. First, because these gifts were immediately subject to ecstatic reviews, 

Charles Cahen d'Anvers
completely devoid of the antisemitic invective of the previous two generations regarding these very collections. Second, because in that very year, the Nuremberg Race Laws drafted by the Nazi authorities tightened the noose around the necks of Jews in Germany, and Nazism was not far from imposing itself on a largely cooperative France.

Among the many quotable lines in McAuley’s volume, one (p. 227) stands out as a concise summary of one of the story’s endings: “By March 1944…. [t]he mansion that had once hosted glittering banquets in the fin-de-siècle, with guests like Marcel Proust and the King of Serbia, now imprisoned sixty Jews”—who would shortly be sent to Drancy and thence to Auschwitz. Nor is this the only terminus: the epilogue focuses on the moving portrait painted by Renoir in 1880, of Irène Cahen d’Anvers as a beautiful little girl with exuberant light-brown hair and a wistful look in her eye—stolen by the Nazis in 1941. (Renoir, by the way, had nothing but excoriating comments to make regarding the Jewish patrons who kept him afloat—including references to their cheapness, although he received far more for this and several other Jewish family portraits than for any works before or after from any other clients).

Irène Cahen d'Anvers
The painting had belonged to Irène’s daughter, Béatrice, whom Irène had abandoned when she divorced her husband, Charles, in 1902, (it was largely a mismatch, from the bride’s and groom’s ages to their personalities, but Charles never really recovered from the shock of the separation and its concomitants). Irène also abandoned her Judaism for Catholicism. The painting of Irène as a little girl was, sadly, the only tangible connection that Béatrice had to her mother as the years moved forward after the divorce. Béatrice perished at Auschwitz and Irène—who managed to survive the war hiding in Paris—was able to assert a claim and gain possession of the painting in 1946—but in 1949 sold it to Emil G. Bührle, the notorious Swiss collector whose wealth derived largely from selling armaments to the Nazis. One might suppose that Béatrice rolled in her grave.

A dust-up emerged at the founding of HARP during an international conference held on September 4, 1997 in which the issue of how the National Gallery of Art (NGA) had allowed Bührle to be misrepresented as a virtual anti-Nazi crusader when the museum hosted his collection in a traveling exhibition in 1990. Bührle most notoriously acquired (during the war) four works plundered from another French Jewish collector, Paul Rosenberg, through Nazi connections. Rosenberg, who survived WWII, showed up at Buehrle’s doorstep to claim them—but that is another story for another day. 

McAuley’s nuanced narrative leaves the reader with a range of villains from whom to choose in the century that encompasses the Holocaust and its aftermath, the handful of heroes mostly turned to ashes, like the unique world that they shaped—except for the lush array of objects and museums left to be enjoyed by the patrie. The Western world has suffered from remarkable bouts of amnesia—both willful and simply out of ignorance—(see the previous review by this writer in HARP’s “plundered art” blog), as the decades since the Holocaust spread out and we continue to repeat the sorts of actions that brought such grief to so many in so many different ways over 80 years ago. This book adds an important chapter to the Holocaust narrative and its culture-centered subset. It plays a noteworthy part in the effort to restitute memory—that most significant feature that makes humans human

Photos courtesy of wikimedia.

06 October 2021

Review: Pauline Baer de Pérignon: The Vanished Collection

by Ori Z. Soltes 

Every time one might be inclined to suppose that the last page has been turned on the vast narrative of the Holocaust—and certainly of that chapter that deals with the Nazi plunder of cultural property—another book, and not merely another page, appears that adds another nuance or issue. 

One of the truisms of the multi-aspected genocide engineered by the Nazis is its complexity and its internal paradoxes, which magnified the characteristic of paradox that is endemic to humanity. The Nazis offered inherent contradictions between the mud-and-excrement chaos of the pre-death world that they prepared for their victims and both the carefully ordered manner in which that world operated and the spit-polish cleanliness that obsessed Hitler and his inner circle who shaped and governed it. 

One paradox resonates from the manner in which the population designated for extermination was defined—from whom property and particularly cultural artifacts were confiscated directly (for they had ceased to possess the right to own anything, according to the laws articulated in and beyond Nuremberg in 1935) or indirectly (by forced sales of art and other possessions at a fraction of their value). The same Alfred Rosenberg who would be put in charge of defining racial categories and their features (eyes, hair, nose, lips, intellect, emotion, and the like) in order to decided who would suffer which particular fate, when, and why, was subsequently charged with organizing an effective and far-reaching system of art plunder. Among the racial determinants for Jews was the clear conclusion that having a single Jewish grandparent was sufficient for one’s polluted bloodline to yield a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. 

Yet apparently—paradoxically—the Fuehrer might make exceptions if it served his needs: so the most successful art plunderer on Hitler’s behalf, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, in spite of his paternal grandmother’s having been Jewish, flourished. Hitler also gave a survival pass to his Jewish barber (who never took the opportunities he must have had to slit his master’s throat). And on the other hand, while the most concerted Nazi efforts directed toward cultural appropriation were aimed at Jews and Slavic states, survivors or their offspring and descendants (some of whom become claimants of cultural property) are sometimes not Jewish.

Pauline Baer de Perignon grew up in France as a Catholic. The engrossing book authored by this journalist, film-script writer and writing instructor began by happenstance: a passing comment from a cousin engaged in the art world, whom she hadn’t seen in years, followed by a piece of paper on which he had written down the names of a handful of works by great masters that had once belonged to her great-grandfather, and which—her cousin rather casually noted—had probably been stolen from him.

The narrative that unfolds interweaves two main issues. One is the story itself that begins to take shape: yet another case of a French collector—in this case, Jules Strauss was particularly well-known for his generous contributions to the Louvre of exquisite and suitable frames for a good number of its masterpieces—dispossessed of his cultural property; and how easily and conveniently that datum and its accompanying details were obliterated from the communal memory of the French art and culture world in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.

The other is the process through which, inch by inch, the author scaled the double territory of trying to understand what had happened to her great-grandfather’s collections—how to begin and deepen and broaden her research—and came to a deeper understanding of her own family identity and heritage.

Jules Strauss, we learn, while he directed pointed if quantitatively modest efforts to building his own art collection, devoted unique amounts of energy to providing the Louvre with frames more consistent with the paintings hung within them than had previously been the case: he innovated both the very idea of taking the framing of a painting seriously and directing serious efforts to providing the right one for a given work, subtly enhancing its appearance. Yet (to repeat) Strauss also possessed some interesting and valuable works of art—such as a small drawing by Tiepolo that ended up in the collections of the Louvre and an intriguing painting by Largillière, a Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, which ended up in the Dresden Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in former East Germany.

These works emerge in Baer de Pérignon’s narrative as a focus within what also evolves: a realization that they had not made the journey from Jules Strauss’s walls to the storage facilities of these museums along a legitimate path, but as part of the often obscure and unstraightforward process of cultural-artifact depradations in which the Nazis were so particularly skilled. Among the ironic—or galling—aspects of the Jules Strauss story was that his home, 60 Avenue Foch, also confiscated by the regime, was requisitioned by senior members of the SS specialized in black market operations and the seizure of Jewish property.

Pauline Baer de Pérignon’s own journey includes a number of interesting turns and twists as she also evolves, to become a knowledgeable and comfortable denizen of the archives in which she would eventually uncover the documentary proof that these works did not leave her great-grandfather’s possession simply because—as the director of the Dresden museum would cynically ask her during the first round of her attempts to regain that piece of her family patrimony—“perhaps Herr Strauss was happy to have sold his painting for a decent price?”

Differently—but equally important in stature and intangibility to her quest to reclaim these tangible connections to Jules and her family past—is her arrival to a point of wondering how, exactly, and why, precisely, her father and two of his first cousins converted, in 1940, to Catholicism. A whole other aspect of the world of Nazi confiscations emerged for her, regarding layered and interwoven aspects of her family—and her own—religious identity.

This last extended detail is ultimately shaped around the peculiar and willful amnesia of which, she comes to recognize, her family has been suffering during the two generations since the Holocaust had come, uprooted and destroyed so much, and gone, like a devastating typhoon. That amnesia set in, more specifically, after Jules’ widow, Pauline de Baer Pérignon’s great-grandmother, had filed several claims with her government—the French government—regarding the works of art that that government and its museum bureaucracy refused to acknowledge as having come into their possession along the illegitimate path of Nazi spoliation.

The amnesia that set in for the family, which involves its own heritage, both cultural and spiritual, and the amnesia of the French government and museum world, are part of the larger amnesia from which those who struggle in the trenches of art restitution are trying to help the Western world recover, as the decades since the Holocaust spread out and we continue, as a species, to repeat the sorts of actions that bought such grief to so many in such a range of different ways over 75 years ago. That is why this book—aside from its flowing style, compelling storyline and intriguing twists and turns—adds such an important chapter to the Holocaust narrative and its culture-centered subset. Its ultimate theme is really about restituting memory—that most significant of characteristics that makes humans human. 

09 January 2021

“Happy” New Year 2021

By Marc Masurovsky


[This opinion piece reflects my own views and does not necessarily represent those of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and its members.]


The word “happy” should be framed with heavy quotation marks.  In year two of a worldwide pandemic triggered by the seemingly unstoppable spread of a deadly virus popularly known as COVID-19, our everyday routines have been permanently upended. Each and everyone of us has had to rethink how to make ends meet in a largely virtual world. Millions of lives have been cast into disarray and oftentimes shattered, as a confluence of factors generated and fueled by self-centered human behavior has exarcerbated an already terrifying daily reality:

-inadequate and sometimes cynical government responses to the health crisis—that’s putting it mildly!—and their lukewarm initiatives to stanch the damage they have unwittingly stoked;

-citizens’ extraordinary expressions of self-righteous entitlements about not taking even the most elemental hygienic precautions—mask-wearing, social distancing, limiting involvement with and participation in group events and gatherings—just because they can…;

-illogical and irrational politicizing of basic civil and civic behavior aimed at curbing and neutralizing a deadly virus… just because…


Our exit from 2020 allowed us to breathe a sigh of relief with hopes of return to some kind of “normalcy”. That wish was quickly interrupted by the State-sponsored right-wing populist assault on the Congress of the United States on 6 January 2021. The product of decades of discontent and radicalized feelings of alienation, disempowerment of a large segment of the American populace, mixed in with ignorant and uneducated fantasies of Aryan supremacy and profound dislike for the “other” whom these elements have routinely blamed for their own suffering and sense of hopelessness in a fast-moving, rapidly-evolving world. A lethal cocktail that American politicians and elected officials, including the outgoing president, have stoked and manipulated for their own base motives, themselves nurtured by idealizations of what it would be like to be in charge of a largely monolithic, authoritarian, violent and very “white” system.


Knowing all of this, is it still possible to continue discussing crimes against culture resulting in the massive displacement of cultural objects owned by individuals or entities targeted for their “otherness”?


The answer is a resounding “YES.”


The victims of cultural plunder are resoundingly the “others” who don’t fit into a white supremacist, nationalist, monolithic view of a world bereft of difference.


Advocating on their behalf means that we uphold their essential humanity, their inalienable right to exist, thrive and create in this world of ours which is theirs.


Fighting for the restitution of objects displaced and plundered during the Nazi era, or during conflicts around the world, or resulting from attacks against indigenous communities worldwide, means that we fight for our collective and individual rights to culture, regardless of place and context.


Encouraging and promoting a broad-based and democratic approach to the documentation of these displaced objects by acknowledging the stories of their creation and their creators as well as their tumultuous movement occasioned by displacement, theft, misappropriation, and recycling on the international art market.


We are all equal and we are all in this together—regardless of race, creed, religion, ethnicity, and belief.  And together, more than ever, we shall prevail, if not for our sake, for the sake of our children and grand-children and their progeny until the ends of time.