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.
Gaehtgens cited one case in which a Jewish owner sold a painting in 1935 to another Jewish collector and the painting ended up in a German museum in the postwar period.
The American Jewish heirs of the first Jewish owner are now being sued by the heirs of the second Jewish owner to determine to whom the painting should be returned.
So there are moral and philosophical considerations in determining the legal ownership of a painting that might have changed hands a dozen times during the Nazi and postwar eras, often under murky circumstances.
These moral questions lie outside the purview of the Getty research, but, as a private citizen, Gaehtgens holds that with most legal rulings the original traceable owner retains the rights to the painting, even if subsequent buyers acquired and paid for it in good faith.
Although Huemer and Gaehtgens follow current cases on looted art, they insist their research is not intended as legal fodder in court cases but is primarily of historical and scholarly value.
At the GRI, the focus of this work is the Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance, and specifically the Getty Provenance Index, which provides Internet access to some 1 million archival records.
Scholars use the index to explore the history of art collecting, mapping of art markets and changing art tastes over the centuries.
Once the auction catalogs and a great deal of other material are processed into digital databases, experts and amateurs can track an art object using keywords, such as an artist’s name or nationality, the title or subject of a painting, names of an owner, buyer or seller, the date and city of a sale, or names of auction houses.
British art historian Francis Haskell wrote in 1998 that the provenance index “will surely one day be recognized as one of the most solid scholarly achievements of our time in the field of art history (and perhaps in the humanities as a whole), not glamorous or eye-catching, but solid and scholarly, and all the more unusual, fruitful and indispensable for precisely that reason.”
One example of the index’s usefulness came with the acquisition in 1992 by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Peter Paul Rubens’ 1612 painting of Christ’s entombment.
At the time of purchase, the painting’s provenance was known only back to the mid-19th century. However, the number 146 appeared on the face of the painting, which the Getty experts took to be an inventory number.
Searching the provenance index, they found a single record in which the inventory number and the artist’s name matched. Digging further, they established as one of the earliest owners of the painting a Spanish grandee and art collector, Gaspar de Haro y Guzman Carpio.
The GRI project is very much an international effort, and in 2008 Gaehtgens convened a conference of European and American scholars on “Nazi-era Provenance Research: Archival Sources and Electronic Access.”
As one result of the pooled resources, the GRI project can draw on documents and databases from, for instance, the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibit in Munich and the “Special Commission for Linz,” Hitler’s grandiose vision for a colossal museum in his Austrian hometown, containing the greatest of all European art.
As part of their studies, the German-born Gaehtgens and Austrian-born Huemer have examined the tastes of the Reich’s three greatest looters.
“Hitler’s preference was for late-19th century art, [Luftwaffe chief] Hermann Goering liked the imperial style, and [Nazi ideologue] Alfred Rosenberg [who commanded a special unit of art hunters in Eastern Europe] preferred Expressionist works,” Gaehtgens said.
There are no definitive figures on the scope of the Nazi-looted art campaign. However, one expert, professor Jonathan Petropoulos of Claremont McKenna College, author of “Art as Politics in the Third Reich,” estimates that 600,000 paintings, sculptures and Judaica artifacts were seized by Hitler’s minions.
Of these, Petropoulos believes, around 100,000 are still missing. “Some have probably been destroyed,” he said, “and others may not turn up for generations.”