Not only for art's sake

Editorial Notebook

August 26, 2006|By Ann LoLordo

In her leather-bound journal from Paris, Etta Cone routinely recorded her monthly expenses:

Cezanne lithograph portfolio 51.50

Shoes mended, shoes heeled 10

Stamps, oil, excess mail 7.20

Cab, laundry, tea, cake 7.15

Books on etchings 31.50

Flowers for Gertrude's birthday 7.50

11 drawings, 7 etchings Picasso 175

The year was 1906, but for today's curators who are trying to trace the provenance of objects in museum collections, detailed note-taking such as Miss Cone's is invaluable. A bill of sale or other documentation can easily settle a work of art's origins. This isn't just about authenticating a piece of art for art's sake or in explaining art's history. Provenance has taken on greater significance to explore and enumerate the shameful legacy of Adolf Hitler.

A diary, letters, photographs or other primary sources can help establish the rightful owner of a painting or sculpture suspected of being looted by the Nazis.

For the past decade, there has been a concerted effort by U.S. museums to review their collections for any art objects that had been stolen from Jews and other Holocaust victims, as well as from institutions, museums and embassy collections. The search followed the discovery of archival material after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that revealed only a portion of the stolen art was recovered in the postwar years.

In an effort to find these other lost works of art, the American Association of Museums asked its members to survey their collections for items that were made or acquired between 1932 and 1946 and to authenticate their provenance. Not an easy task even for an institution such as the Baltimore Museum of Art. It is tedious and time-consuming research that can tie up an archivist for months as he or she pores over documents, artist catalogs, exhibition publications and other library material. It may require tracking down the holdings of an out-of-business art dealer, traveling to Europe to research archives there, verifying that a handshake deal was legitimate.

"It's that kind of digging around," says Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial affairs.

In researching 768 non-American paintings, the BMA established the provenance of 604. It continues to work on the remaining 164. The BMA has not found any Nazi booty in its collection, but it did discover something amiss about the painting Turkish Scene. Donated to the museum in 1944 for a special exhibition, it had been attributed to three Italian painters instead of the actual artist, the French painter Francois Riviere. "It is a fairly minor work of art. ... but it's there, and we're responsible to figure it out," says Mr. Fisher.

The museum association established a database for U.S. museums to log their art from the Nazi era in an effort to bring aging Holocaust survivors, their heirs and the public into the search.

No one expects to find a trove of lost or missing Nazi-looted art in U.S. museums. So far, 23 pieces of art have been recovered and returned through the review process. Most were found at top museums. But what about the provenance of the collections of smaller institutions?

With limited resources, smaller museums such as the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts have an exceedingly more difficult job researching their pieces. The Hagerstown museum identified about five to 10 objects from 1932-1946.

"We can't be certain of where they were in the '30s," explains Joseph Ruzicka, the museum director. "You have to trace it back one owner at a time, and really sometimes you may have a decade or century where you can't find an owner, and then the object reappears."

But museums must press on. "It's part of our duty of stewardship," he says. "It's just about doing the right thing.

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