The Getty Research Institute (GRI) is in the process of combining old-fashioned detective work, modern technology and the scholarly tools of art history to help identify the rightful owners, mainly Jews, of paintings forcibly taken by the Hitler regime.
In searching for evidence to determine provenances — ownership history — of important artworks, GRI researchers and their colleagues in Germany are digging through a huge cache of art auction catalogs from the Nazi era.
“In a sense, our work is similar to genealogists tracking a family’s pedigree, which may go back as far as the Renaissance,” GRI director Thomas Gaehtgens said.
The next, and key, step will be to digitize the information and categorize it in digital archives, which will be available to the general public, including potential heirs and their lawyers.
Given the six years of World War II, which included widespread bombing and looting by all armies, just tracking down the auction catalogs in Germany, Switzerland, France and other European countries is a tough job, and it is being carried out mainly by the GRI’s German partners.
“For a long time, auction catalogs were not considered serious research tools by art historians, so no special care was taken to preserve them,” said Christian Huemer, Getty managing editor for the Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance, who heads the project titled “German Sales, 1930-1945: Art Works, Art Markets and Cultural Policy.”
“We estimate that there are about 2,000 German catalogs, but nobody really knows at this point,” Huemer noted.
To make the job even harder, GRI researchers are looking specifically for catalogs annotated with the names of the seller and buyer of a given artwork, and the sales price.
Following these “preliminaries” begins the real work of processing and categorizing the huge amount of data into digital archives, and, Gaehtgens acknowledged, “We are just at the beginning.”
The work is supported by a joint two-year grant of $350,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the German Research Foundation, and an additional $75,000 from the Volkswagen Foundation to track down the catalogs.
Provenance research has been an important, though not headline-making, component of art historical studies for most of modern history, but, perhaps surprisingly, the records and results tend to be more complete for past centuries than for our own time, said Gaehtgens, who is a noted authority on 18th and 19th century German and French art.
The wholesale looting of European art by the Nazi regime, with failed artist Adolf Hitler in the lead, has given a new impetus to provenance research.
As the children and grandchildren of dispossessed Jewish collectors started discovering the paintings taken from their forebears in museums and catalogs, they have taken legal actions to recover the property.
Crucial to their cases has been proving that their parents or grandparents actually owned the artworks and for how long, and whether their possessions had been seized or they had been forced to sell under duress.
Maria Altman, a 94-year-old Los Angeles resident, fought for seven years, including making an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court, before recovering five paintings by Gustav Klimt, valued at $300 million, from the Austrian government.
Currently, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is disputing a claim by an heir of a Dutch Jewish collector for the return of “Adam and Eve,” painted some 500 years ago by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.
As part of its defense, the Norton Simon is pointing to the erratic provenance of the painting, which, during the last century, was owned successively by the governments of the Soviet Union, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as by a Russian-American family.
Few of the current lawsuits are clear-cut, with aggrieved heirs going up against scheming buyers of once-stolen goods. In many instances, the current museum or private collector bought a painting in good faith, and, lacking a proper provenance, failed to realize that the artwork had been forcibly taken from the owner perhaps 70 or 80 years ago.
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