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The Lviv Dürer story continues: Hitler’s shadow over the British Museum

Restitution claims for the Lubomirski and Ossolinski collections are complicated by the history of Lviv’s occupiers

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The British Museum has acquired one of the controversial Lubomirski drawings, which were looted by the Nazis and personally taken by Hitler. Hans Baldung’s “Rape of Europa”, produced in Dürer’s workshop, was given to the British Museum last year as part of the Schilling bequest. Owned since the 1820s by the Lubomirski Museum, the Baldung could now become the subject of legal claims.

“The Rape of Europa” was among a group of Dürer drawings which were seized in 1941 when the Nazis invaded the city of Lwów, then in Poland. The works were presented to Hitler, who admired them so much that he ordered that they should be brought with him on his military visits to the Eastern Front. After later being hidden in the Alt Aussee salt mine, in Austria, the Dürers were recovered by American forces in 1945.

Instead of being returned to the Lubomirski Museum in Lwów, the drawings were handed over to the Lubomirski family. US official documents suggest that they were given to Swiss-based Prince Georg Lubomirski (other sources argue that they were presented to his father, Prince Andrzej). In 1954 Prince Georg Lubomirski sold the drawings and many of the works were subsequently acquired by museums in America and Europe, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and London’s Courtauld Gallery (The Art Newspaper, No.47, April 1995, pp.1 and 6, and No.48, May 1995, p.5).

Although originally attributed to Dürer, “The Rape of Europa” is now thought to be by Hans Baldung, done in around 1504 while he was in Dürer’s workshop. Along with the other Dürers from Lwów, it went to Prince Georg Lubomirski after World War II. In 1954, or soon afterwards, the drawing was sold to Edmund Schilling, a scholarly collector who had fled from Nazi Germany to England in 1937. “The Rape of Europa” was among a hundred works bequeathed to the British Museum following the death of Schilling and his wife. The Schilling collection, including the Baldung, was exhibited at the museum last winter.

A British Museum spokesman admitted that the origin of “The Rape of Europa” was known when it was accepted (and there is a Lubomirski collector’s mark on the reverse of the drawing). Yet although the British Museum was aware of its provenance, crucial details were inexplicably omitted from a catalogue compiled by the museum when the drawing was lent for an earlier exhibition in 1984. The museum’s catalogue entry merely records that the Baldung had belonged to “Prince Lubomirski, Lemberg”, before going to Schilling. Lemberg was the pre-World War I name for Lwów, so the British Museum was therefore omitting to mention that the drawing had later been given to the Lubomirski Museum, where it had remained for well over a century. Hitler’s name is also missing from the provenance.

A British Museum spokesman told The Art Newspaper that Mr Schilling had purchased the drawing “in good faith”. When it passed to the British Museum, it “formed an intrinsic part of a large bequest”, which had come through the National Art Collections Fund (NACF).

David Barrie, director of the NACF, admitted that he had not been aware that “The Rape of Europa” had been looted from the museum in Lwów. As the drawing had been part of a bequest, it had not gone through the rigorous procedures required for grants. “The Baldung raises interesting and important issues about the diligence with which museums, as well as institutions such as ours, need to look into the provenance of acquisitions,” Mr Barrie added.

Few problems relating to Nazi looting are as complex as the Lubomirski Dürers, partly because the city of Lwów has changed hands so many times. It was German until 1918, Polish to 1939, then under Soviet and later German occupation, before being incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945 and becoming part of the independent Ukraine in 1991. Because of the invasions, the Lubomirski Museum had effectively been disbanded by the end of World War II, although part of the collection remained in Lwów (now called Lviv) and other works were transferred to Wroclaw, in Poland. This explains why both the Lviv Art Gallery and Wroclaw’s Ossolinski Library now have reasons to claim the drawings.

The Lviv Art Gallery believes that the American authorities should never have handed over the Dürers to Prince Lubomirski, and that the museum’s founders wished the collection to remain in the city. Curator Dmitri Shelest was preparing a detailed legal case in 1992 when he was shot dead by thieves, while bravely protecting the museum during an armed raid.

The Ossolinski Library in Wroclaw, which was originally linked to the Lubomirski Museum, takes a different position. It argues that because the museum was effectively disbanded because of the war, the Americans were entitled to hand over the Dürers to the family. Prince Andrzej was the museum’s hereditary curator and “a legitimate warden of the museum’s collection.” Ossolinski Library deputy director Dr Dobroslaw Platt told The Art Newspaper that Prince Andrzej would have liked to have taken the Dürers to Wroclaw, because the Lubomirskis were Polish aristocrats and wanted their art treasures to be enjoyed by the Polish people. But Prince Andrzej was apparently worried that the drawings would then have been looted again, this time by the Red Army, which was occupying Poland. He therefore kept the Dürers in Western Europe and it was only after his death in 1953 that they were sold and dispersed by his son, Prince Georg. Dr Platt concludes that “if someone wanted to make a gesture and donate the Dürer drawings taken away from the Lubomirski Museum, then the only legitimate place where they should be located is Wroclaw.”

Talks between the Ukraine and Poland on the legal ownership of the Lubomirski and Ossolinski collections have recently been resumed and the Presidents of both countries have expressed the will to resolve the issue. If the two countries eventually agree on the division of the parts of the Lubomirski and the Ossolinski collections which remain behind in Lviv and Wroclaw, then the next step is likely to be that claims on works which have been or are dispersed in Western Europe and North America will be pursued.

British action against war loot

Britain’s leading museums are to take action over works of art seized during World War II. The National Museum Directors’ Conference is establishing a taskforce to assist in the discovery and recovery of works of art “stolen or looted from victims of Nazi persecution”. To be chaired by Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota, it will include representatives of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery and the British Museum. Culture Secretary Chris Smith has welcomed the move and asked to be kept informed of progress. The first meeting of the taskforce on 18 August began the process of drawing up guidelines for national museums. These will include recommendations on investigating works already in the national collections, on new acquisitions and on handling claims. Museums with major art collections are each expected to nominate an officer who will be responsible for dealing with the issue. The British taskforce follows similar moves by the US Association of Art Museum Directors (The Art Newspaper, No.83, July-August 1998, p.1). Dr Alan Borg, chairman of the National Museum Directors’ Conference, said in July that there are no British galleries which are currently aware of looted items in their collections. He added: “We are now fully alert and can scrutinise the provenance of a work. Unfortunately, in the past, many museums were not as careful as they should have been.” He was, however, ignorant of the Hans Baldung drawing in the British Museum and discussed here. This drawing is now likely to become the first case to be discussed by the new taskforce.

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