Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, is “concerned” about the latest report published by the government’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which says that the gallery should return a painting by Constable to the heirs of its pre-war Hungarian owner. Responding to queries from The Art Newspaper, Serota said that the document includes inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
Serota has been the chairman of the National Museum Directors’ Council group on Nazi-era spoliation since 1998. He is normally guarded in his public comments, particularly on sensitive matters relating to government policy, which makes his latest remarks particularly significant.
In its report on Constable’s Beaching a Boat, Brighton, 1824, published on 26 March, the Spoliation Advisory Panel recommended that the painting be restituted. The Tate then issued a statement accepting this guideline. Serota is not disputing the recommendation, but is questioning details in the report.
The director says that the previous 12 reports on claims submitted to the spoliation panel have been “exemplary”. However, in the case of the Constable, “some inaccuracies and inconsistencies remain in the final report”. He was given just a few hours to comment on the draft of the document, although the panel had taken a full year to consider the claim, and he then responded with important points. “Having drawn attention to [inaccuracies] in an initial draft, we had hoped they would be corrected,” Serota told The Art Newspaper.
Inaccuracies we have identified include the assertion that the Tate should have tracked down a copy of the 1908 auction catalogue for the Constable and “thereby… ascertained that it was sold to a prominent Hungarian Jewish collector”. But the catalogue in question identified the seller of the work, not the buyer.
The report also states that the painting “had been included” in a list of works with an incomplete provenance for the Nazi period, published by the Tate in 2000. In fact, the work was not on this list; at that time, research had only started on European paintings.
One of the key inconsistencies in the report concerns the identification of how and when the work was spoliated. The claimants argued that the painting was looted either after the German invasion in March 1944 or by the Soviets in February 1945.
The panel pointed out that “most” of the owner’s pictures had been deposited in bank vaults in 1942. The Red Army “opened the bank vaults” in 1945, and eyewitnesses reported that at least two of the owner’s works had been carried away.
It is unclear whether the painting by Constable had been in the vaults or held in one of the owner’s two residences. The panel’s report states that “the likelihood” is that the work was taken by the Germans. But its final conclusion is more firmly stated: the picture “was taken… by the German occupying forces”, it says.
Serota is particularly concerned about the claimants’ “charge that [the Tate] has withheld information” from them. He told us: “Tate disclosed everything regarding the provenance and acquisition of the Constable, and the only papers not made available were peripheral documents on the movement of the painting while at Tate.”
The report does not name the pre-war owner of the Constable, but we have identified him as Budapest-based Baron Ferenc Hatvany (The Art Newspaper, April, p1, p6). He fled Hungary in 1947 and died in Lausanne in 1958. The panel concluded that the owner’s heirs have “a strong moral claim for the restitution of the painting”.
Beaching a Boat, Brighton was donated to the Tate in 1986 by a Mrs P.M. Rainford, who acquired it in good faith from a British dealer in 1962. Later this month, the Tate’s trustees are expected to formally decide to deaccession the work and return it to Hatvany’s heirs.
Years of research still not complete
The Constable case has made it abundantly clear that the Tate has not yet completed its research into pictures that have an uncertain provenance for the Nazi period—although this work began in 1999. After this length of time, it was widely assumed in the art scene that the UK’s national museums had finished their main provenance research years ago, but this is not the case.
The first three phases of the Tate’s research were completed reasonably promptly. Phase 1 (pre-1946 European art acquired from 1933 onwards) was published in 2000, with 63 works listed as having an unclear provenance. Phase 2 (UK artists born before 1749) was published in 2003, with 69 works having an unclear provenance. Phase 3 (the Oppé collection of UK works on paper) was published in 2004, with 939 works having an unclear Nazi-era provenance.
The spoliated painting by Constable was included in phase 4 (UK art 1780-1860), which lists 346 works as having an unclear provenance. This was published on 17 March, just nine days before the Spoliation Advisory Panel’s report on the work. The timing can hardly have been coincidental; the Tate presumably realised that it would be unfortunate if the research begun 15 years previously had not identified the work when the panel’s report was published. Phase 5 (British art 1860-1945) is scheduled to be published in September, completing the research.
Nicholas Serota says: “The pace of research has been steady, but the very large number of works has meant that research has only recently become ready for publication.”
Of the UK’s other national museums, the National Gallery was the first to complete its work, which was initially published in conjunction with The Art Newspaper (March 1999, pp16-17).