September 28, 2010
Getty traces ownership of Nazi-era looted art
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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.”
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