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Looting

In an attempt to find works of art that may have been stolen by the Nazis ten British museums have named 350 works of art whose history between 1933 and 1945 is uncertain

British provenance probes

Britain’s national museums have released their first report on works of art that may have been looted during the Nazi era. The detailed document lists 350 items for which the provenance during the 1933-45 period is unclear and further information is being sought, although very few of these works are likely to turn out to have been looted.

In launching the 200-page report, Tate Gallery director Sir Nicholas Serota said that the research had made staff more aware of the terrible events of the Holocaust. “Everyone working in the national museums is now much more open and ready to discuss the issues than we would have been a year or two ago. It has been of enormous benefit for us all,” he explained.

The National Gallery was the first to complete its preliminary research, which was published in The Art Newspaper last year. Of the 130 works on the original list, twenty-one have since been eliminated because a full provenance has been established. There has been only one inquiry from a potential claimant, regarding Bosschaert’s “Flowers in a vase” (a picture spotlighted by The Art Newspaper, No.90, March 1999, pp.16-17). This inquiry has not yet led to a claim.

Following the National Gallery’s lead, nine other national museums and galleries have now released details of works they hold with an uncertain provenance for the Nazi period. These are the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Science Museum, National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, National Museums & Galleries of Wales, National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums of Scotland. The list comprises 240 works, plus the 109 from the earlier National Gallery research. It should be stressed that inclusion on the list “does not in itself indicate any suspicious circumstances, but simply that some provenance information is missing or uncertain.”

The Art Newspaper is highlighting some of the cases with a special interest, and some of these works were handled by art dealers who are recorded in the 1946 US Office of Strategic Services report on collaboration with the Nazis (the full list of dealers was published in The Art Newspaper, No.88, January 1999, pp.6-16). Obviously the fact that a dealer appears on this list does not mean that works they handled will necessarily have been looted, and for most of them the vast majority of their wartime trade was quite legitimate.

So far there has been only one formal claim against a UK national museum, made against the Tate Gallery for Griffier’s “View of Hampton Court Palace”. The pre-war owner had been a Düsseldorf banker and after he was shot by the Nazis in 1937 his widow fled to Brussels, where she was “forced” to sell the picture to survive. The claim is now being brought by her three elderly children, who live in south-east England. The Tate had acquired the painting in good faith in 1961 from a London dealer and responded promptly to the recent claim. Now worth up to £200,000, the Griffier is expected to be the first case to be considered by the government’s newly-established Spoliation Advisory Panel.

Meanwhile, the major non-national museums plan to conduct research into their works of art which have an unclear provenance for the Nazi period. Around two dozen institutions are expected to participate, including large local authority collections (such as Birmingham and Bristol) and the university museums (such as the Courtauld, Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam).

o Full details of the national museums’ list are available at www.national museums.org.uk/spoliation.

Case histories

o Van Gogh, “La Crau from Montmajour” (1888), British Museum. Bequeathed by César Mange de Hauke in 1968. Mange de Hauke had purchased the Van Gogh by 1948 through the London dealer Matthiesen (who had been based in Berlin before the war). In 1945 the drawing was in a Basle exhibition on loan from a private collector in Lausanne/Ascona, and this may well refer to Matthiesen’s wife, who had a house in Ascona. Before that the Van Gogh was with A. von Hoboken in Vienna, of whom nothing is known. The 1946 US government list of art dealers who collaborated with the Nazis lists both Matthiesen and Mange de Hauke. Matthiesen’s Berlin gallery was “run by Heinz Mansfeld and Margarethe Noble, identified as the owner of the Goudstikker Collection.” Mange de Hauke was “active in Paris during the occupation; in contact with Wuester, Haberstock and Hofer, documentary evidence in Unit files.”

o Huber, “The Last Judgement” (1510), British Museum. Bought in 1938 from A. Rosenthal. This was probably the Amsterdam dealer Rosenthal, described in the US list of collaborating dealers as “German Jewish refugee dealer, formerly associated in Berlin with Erasmas and Modrczewski.” Nothing is known of the earlier provenance of the Huber drawing.

o Kulmbach, “The Magus Balthasar” (c.1510), British Museum. The museum’s catalogue of German drawings records it as having been “acquired by Posse for the Führermuseum, Linz”. The previous owner, Oskar Bondy of Vienna, is thought to have disposed of the drawing in a forced sale in 1938 and he later died in a concentration camp. When in 1967 the drawing was purchased by the British Museum from Zurich dealer August Laube, questions were asked by the trustees and they were informed that the Kulmbach had been returned to Bondy’s widow the previous year. Laube’s successor was recently approached for confirmation, but told the British Museum that it has “no archive of its transactions in the 1960s.” The location of the drawing from 1938 to 1966 remains a mystery, as are the circumstances of the supposed return to the widow.

o Ricci, “Christ healing the blind man” (c.1715), National Gallery of Scotland. Purchased in 1994 from Whitfield Fine Art in London, who had bought it at Sotheby’s on 11 December 1991. Before this, the picture had been auctioned at Fritz Nagel in Stuttgart, on 19 April 1991. Although the picture’s early provenance is recorded up to 1843, the only identified owner from then until 1991 is a “private collection, Bavaria”. This was probably the owner immediately before the Stuttgart sale, so the provenance for the Nazi period remains unclear.

o Pisanello, “Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan” (c.1441), National Gallery of Scotland. The medal was purchased at Sotheby’s on 24 May 1988. The earlier provenance was given as Goldschmidt, Paris, 1936. Another medal bought by the gallery at the same sale is recorded as once having belonged to F. Goldschmidt of Berlin.

o Alessi, “St Jerome reading in a cave” (c.1471), Walker Art Gallery, National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside. The limestone relief was bought from Cyril Humphris in 1970, and two years before that it had been acquired by London dealer E.A. Martin. An earlier owner, by 1955, was T. Ventura, wife of the Florentine dealer Eugenio Ventura. Mr Ventura had provided works of art for Goering in 1942-43, exchanging Italian paintings and sculptures for looted Impressionist works. The US list of collaborating dealers states on Ventura: “Visited personally by Goering, with whom he became involved in an important exchange of pictures.”

o Von Lenbach, “Portrait of John Acton” (c.1879), National Portrait Gallery. Purchased in 1958 from Gustav Cramer, a dealer in The Hague, who had bought it from Waldemaar Croon Jr, a director of a large textile factory in Aachen, Germany. Croon claimed to have purchased the portrait in around 1943 from a German-born dealer in the Netherlands. Cramer is on the US list of collaborating dealers as a “refugee in Holland where he worked mostly on commission. Believed to have been backed by Muehlmann or Hoepel. In touch with Hofer.” The only earlier provenance for the portrait is Munich collector Countess Marie Kalkreuth in the late nineteenth century.

o Ströhling, “Miniature of Sir John Francis Edward Acton” (1780s), National Portrait Gallery. The miniature was purchased by the gallery in 1958 from a Dublin owner, Dr G.A. Kenyon. The Hon. Mrs Woodruff, a descendant of the Acton family, told the gallery that it “might have been picked up by someone in the [British] Army at Naples in the war”. An inscription on the reverse in Italian suggests that it once belonged to the Acton family in Naples.

o Albani, “Portrait of Andrea Calvi” (1936), National Museums & Galleries of Wales. Purchased from the Heim Gallery, London, in 1978. The only known provenance is a private collector in London and before that a collector in Berlin

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline 'British provenance probes'