Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pontormo

Before we left for New York I was perusing the New Yorker Magazine when I came across what looked like an afterthought at the bottom of the “In the Museums” page.  It was, however, written by the incredibly discerning and articulate art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.   His subject was another small focused exhibition, this time at the Morgan Library and Museum. He started the paragraph by saying, “The small show ‘Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters,’ at the Morgan Library, centers on one of the damnedest great paintings of all time: Jacopo Pontormo’s ‘Visitation’ (1528-29), on loan from a church near Florence”.  Now, how can one resist that come on?

Jacopo da Pontormo’s (1494-1557) was born Jacopo Carrucci, and his father, Vasari noted, was also a painter.  Jacopo had some illustrious apprenticeships among them with Leonardo da Vinci and Piero di Cosimo.  He broke away from the classic Renaissance style of his teachers to become one of the champions of a new style called Mannerism, a movement some art historians consider originated with Michelangelo.

The Morgan’s exhibition focuses on Pontormo’s impressive “Visitation”, an altarpiece thought to have been painted for a location in Florence but which has been installed in a side chapel in a small parish church in Carmignano for the past 480 years.  It represents The Virgin and her older cousin, Elizabeth, both pregnant, the latter with John the Baptist, and two attendants looking out at the viewer.


Next to it is a rare drawing for the painting lent by the Uffizi in Florence. For some reason the Morgan could not release a photo, but I did find it on WikiArt marked “public domain”.  It is alway exciting when you can study the “modello” next to the final product.  The drawing has been squared so that the composition transferred to the panel with each square of the drawing enlarged 7½ times.


There are just five works of art in the exhibition which includes a print by Durer which may have inspired Pontormo’s “Visitation” composition, a red chalk self-portrait by Pontormo and his drawing of an armed youth. They are shown in a gallery the size of a doctor’s waiting room. It is the first gallery you see on the main floor of the museum and was named after a great dealer/collector and his wife who contributed mightily to the drawings collection of the Morgan, Clare and Gene Thaw.  Both passed away recently but knowing them, they would have loved this show!


Pontormo only painted 15 portraits most of which are in Italy but we are extremely lucky to have one in a private collection in New York which was lent to this show.   It is “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap”, circa 1530, tentatively identified as Carlo Neroni, a Floretine nobleman.   In spite of being much smaller than the altarpiece, it is such a strong image and shows the artists hand so clearly, that it is offers the possibility of contrasting Pontormo’s public and private style.


How the portrait came to New York is an interesting story by itself.  It had been on view, as a loan to the National Gallery in London where J. Tomilson Hill, the New York financier and  major art collector, first saw it.  He learned that the owner, the Earl of Caledon, was interested in a cash sale.   Hill paid $48 million for the picture which was, in 2015, £30.7 million.  Hill then applied for an export license.  The British government has the right to hold up export to see if the sum can be raised to buy it from the exporter.  The National Gallery managed to raise the £30.7 million but over the time it took to raise that sum, Brexit caused the value of the pound to fall. Hill said he would have let the painting go if he had received the dollar amount he paid but accepting the original figure in post-Brexit pounds would have cost him 10 million dollars and he would not take that loss.  

Market values aside the last sentence of Peter Schjeldahl’s mini review returns us to the impact of Pontormo’s “Visitation” altarpiece, “The work simultaneously maximizes the two classic functions of painting, narrative and decoration like nothing else you have ever seen.”  The show is up at the Morgan until January 6, 2019 before it heads to the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 5 to April 28th.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Charterhouse of Bruges

As I have said before, I love small focused exhibitions since too often I get lost or confused in the larger ones when the curator of the show is trying to make too many points at once.  Our trip to New York revealed two such small exhibitions and I will write about one this week and the other next.

The Frick Collection was kind enough to send me an elaborate Press Kit when the show “The Charter House of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos” opened but I decided I had to see it before writing.  It was well worth waiting for.  The Frick has one small exhibition space, smaller than a New York hotel room, which they often use to show that would get lost in a larger venue and they used it to optimal advantage for this exhibition.

A Charter House is a Carthusian monastery. For those like me who are not sure who the Carthusians are, they are part of an austere monastic order started by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084.  They remove themselves from the world as we know it, one of solitude and silence, staying mostly in their cells  I would go mad by day two, but that is their chosen life to concentrate on their religious beliefs.  While some art might be considered distracting other subjects were believed to be of assistance in meditation, at least in the 15th century.   As a result the Charterhouse in Bruges, became a repository some of the major art of the period and and the subject of this show.

Sometimes one enjoys works of art by association and that is the case for me.  This exhibition includes two marble relief sculptures of Carthusian monks, ca. 1380-1400 from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I remember close to a decade ago a long row of alabaster figures of Carthusians, 36 strong and 16 inches high, at the Metropolitan Museum.  Known as the Mourners. They were lent by the museum in Dijon where they were created to surround the ducal tomb.  The photo below shows how impressive they were by the throngs around them in the Met’s Medieval Court.   Here is the article from the New York Times covering that event.

Here is the image from the Met in 2010 and the 2 kneeling figures from Cleveland at the Frick.




Bruges is a small town in Belgium that had some truly great artists working there including one of the greatest, and a teacher to so many others, Jan van Eyck (1395-1441).  Looking at some of his small paintings one gets the feeling he painted with a single brush hair, he is so precise and his little figures so perfect.  Often it is helpful to have a magnifying glass which is graciously supplied by the Frick from a rack of several on the wall.

The nine works in the show are all of a small scale so one can grasp the sense of the exhibition quite easily.   The smallest of the objects is a Boxwood carved “prayer nut” by Adam Dircksz and his workshop which was lent by a private collector.  It was made for the Carthusian François du Puy, circa 1517-21 just 1 7/8 inches in diameter.  Here the magnifying glass was most helpful, and the artist also must have used some visual aid!  It is beautifully carved with praying monks outside and the inside shows the mother and Child on one side and two monks praying on the other.  A prayer tool that could be carried in a pocket must have been a source of great comfort and support to the bearer.



Jan Vos was elected to be prior of the Charterhouse of Bruges in 1441 and remained so for nine years.   While most works of art were given to the Charterhouse by lay patrons, Vos
commissioned the two pre-eminent artists of Bruges to paint works, so he himself became a patron.  I wonder what others thought of him being portrayed as such in some of the paintings he commissioned.  Jan van Eyck’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth and Jan Vos” in the Frick collection was commissioned shortly before the artist’s death in 1441.  It is thought that a very accomplished member of his studio completed the painting and it has been suggested that was Petrus Christus.  The closely related “Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos“ lent for the exhibition by the State Museum Painting Gallery in Berlin, was painted by Petrus Christus a few years later.  The Frick’s painting was once in the care of my family gallery from a private collection.



I will end with a painting we sold to a private collector that has been lent to the show, “The Virgin and Child by a Fountain”, about 1440.  It is called a workshop copy of a work painted by Jan van Eyck in 1439, though I heard from at least one museum director that if the virtually identical painting did not exist in the Museum in Antwerp our picture would be considered the original by van Eyck.  Years ago we were lucky enough to see the two paintings side by side and I could not see that the one considered autograph was superior or different, for that matter.   Such is the life of a purveyor of Old Masters.  It is not unusual for an artist to repeat a painting for second patron.  How many portraits did Gilbert Stuart do of George Washington, some of them virtually identical?   In one museum I once found the papers where a curator said that theirs’s was the original of a work of sculpture though he was not sure himself!  The rule is don’t buy a work of art if the copy hangs in the Louvre, because you are bound to lose that argument, no matter what.  As hard as it is still for me to believe this incredible “Virgin and Child by a Fountain” was not an easy sell!


Curating this exhibition and gathering these loans is a rather remarkable feat and it was done by Emma Capron, who is the current Anne L. Poulet, Curatorial Fellow at the Frick.  Judging by the show and catalog which includes far more material than in the exhibition, this budding professional is a definite keeper!  She did the catalog with two of my old friends, Dr. Maryan W. Ainsworth Curator in the Department of Painting at the Metropolitan Museum and Till-Holger Borchert, Director of the 16 City Museums of Bruges.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

New York, New York, It’s a Hell of a Town

There were 4 art fairs in New York during the 5 days we were there and we spent 7 hours at just one of them, and that was TEFAF, New York.  TEFAF, The European Art Fair, started in 1988 in the small town of Maastricht, The Netherlands and expanded to New York in 2016.  If you put TEFAF in the search engine at the upper left you will see a number of my Missives written about it over the last 8 years, first in Maastricht and now here in the States.  In New York  the Park Avenue Armory allows space for just 93 exhibitors while the Maastricht fair building held 288 in 2012.  It gives you an idea of the size of the European exhibit halls but also why there is a TEFAF, New York both in the fall, for art up to 1820, and spring, when they bring in the more modern and contemporary art from well-known dealers.  Meanwhile, TEFAF, Maastricht has not been abandoned.

It seems to me that the fair here has gotten better and better with more and more being spent by both the fair organizers and the dealers themselves who might spend as much as a quarter of a million dollars to participate including booth rental, installation, and decoration not including transport and housing .  TEFAF always starts off with champagne and flowers are a TEFAF hallmark and this time the Armory was hung with strings of purple orchids dripping from the ceiling.



Being there on a press pass I was early as people arrived slowly for the VIP opening from 1pm until 5pm.  When the benefit for Sloan Kettering began at 5, there were so many attendees that they had someone in charge of apologizing to people regarding the wait for the coat check.  Of course, if you are going to drink champagne you need to eat something so there were continuous small hors d’oevres passed around such as miniature crab cakes or duck wrapped in a miniature tortilla.   Another staple is the Oyster Man with his bucket of oysters shucking them on a first come first serve, basis.  He is present at so many TEFAF fairs that someone asked him if he had a favorite artist yet.  He admitted he had found something he fancied at this fair, but it was out of his league.  I ventured, “Do you ever trade oysters for art?” He said he had a few dealers he did work with in that manner. When the benefit began the food became more extravagant with two different kinds of smoked salmon and miniature pizzas etc.   Here, an image of the crowds beginning at 5 and the oysterman in Maastricht.



Of course, the reason to go to the fair is to see and consider the art and even with just 93 exhibitors there is plenty to think about.  I have picked a few pieces that caught my eye and made me curious enough to walk over and read what I could about them.  If you asked my wife what her favorite pieces were she would come up with a totally different list.  Years ago we played a game.  She picked what she would have wanted to buy for the museum she was working for at the time and I said what I wanted to take home.

The first work to capture my attention was a carved and painted wood Calvary scene.  It was  an 18th century Ecuadorian piece brought by Jaime Eguiguren from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It is stylized yet gripping the viewer to the scene.


At the booth of Carlo Orsi, Milan and Trinity Fine Art, London, I saw a lifesize 5 foot 8 inch marble representing “Milo of Croton,” a 6th century wrestler, by Giuseppi Piamontini signed and dated G.P./F./1740 and bearing the Arms of the Gerini Family.  It came alive for me as I could not be sure if he had won that round or not!


A real coup for Hirschl & Adler, a venerable old gallery in American painting, was to show the over life size Munro Lenox Portrait of George Washington, circa 1800, by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).  You will have to take my word for this but standing looking at the painting was celebrity, Steve Martin; when he saw my iphone he spun around so quickly that I just got part of his silver haired head, far left.


One of the most important pieces in the fair, and one that Penelope and I would have agreed on both for the museum and our home, was a small figure that might easily have been missed. It was the so-called Galatea Salt, dated 1624,and signed  by the renowned Dutch silversmith, Adam van Viannen on the stand of A. Aardewerk, from The Hague, The Netherlands. In a tour de force of silversmithing it was hammered out of a single sheet with the only two almost invisible seams. Although designed as a salt dish it was created as an objet d’art, not part of a table service. You can imagine that works by Adam van Vianen are extremely rare but I have loved them since my visit as a child to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which has the largest collection of his work.


Fairs are places to make discoveries, but if you go to the best fairs, true “discoveries” are rare. You will, however, have wonderful experiences.   It is great to have such a treat in New York as well.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Broad Museum

As mentioned previously, my son’s celebration of my birthday included tickets to the  new Broad museum in Los Angeles which I have read a lot about but never seen.  Frankly, it was not at the top of my “must see list” since contemporary art is not my field of interest and there are so many other museums to see in LA.  I learned yet again, try everything, you never know!

Eli Broad bought his first real estate at age 20 and co-founded home builder Kaufman & Broad in 1957 with $25,000 borrowed from his in-laws.   Thanks to the Baby Boom, KB Homes became a tremendous success in affordable housing.

Later he also bought Sun Life Insurance and sold it for 18 Billion.  Forbes has his net worth at 6.7 Billion and the foundations he and his wife, Edythe, founded have assets of 3 Billion!  As my father would have said, “for some people that is their entire fortune!”

The Broads built up their art collection over a half century and gave it an appropriate setting in a Frank Gehry-designed building on their Brentwood Estate. While others say that one has to wait half a century to see if the art stands up, the Broads believed that to build a proper collection you had to collect while the paint was still wet!   Like most patrons they knew what they liked and knew what they wanted so, according to Eli Broad, he had trouble getting along on museum boards and I am sure they felt the same way about him!

The Broads switched their patronage from one institution to another in L.A. and in the first decade of this century they decided that the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) needed a building devoted to contemporary art. They collected only the “Best” artists work and that included, architects, so they asked Renzo Piano to build a three-story edifice on the LACMA campus which opened in 2008. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA has 60,000 square feet of galleries and rotating contemporary art exhibitions. It was assumed that their collection would follow but that was not to be. 

No sooner had they finished the LAMA project, they started to think about their own museum for their personal collection.  The Broads decided again on star museum architects, this time Diller Scofidio & Renfro, to build their two-floor 120,000 square foot space. Half is devoted to gallery space and the rest houses the Broad Art Foundation’s worldwide lending library which for almost, 35 years has been lending works of art out to museums.  Titled simply “The Broad”, their museum opened in September of 2015 and has had about 2,500,000 visitors to date.


Thank goodness Hunter had pre-ordered the timed tickets or we would not have gotten in. I must admit that the space is very impressive.  The galleries are huge have the advantage of 16-foot movable partitions that are up to the the challenge of a flexible presentation of the large-scale art that is the taste today.

The Broads believe in collecting in depth so on their museum website I found 14 paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat.  When we were there “Eyes and Eggs”, a 9.9 x 8.1, foot painting from 1983 was on view.  What might look a bit cartoonish in an illustration certainly is impressive when you are directly confronted by it in the museum.


Devoting a room to a single artist does make an impact especially if you already have some interest in him or her - it also gives you an opportunity to change or modify your opinion.  Unfortunately, if you do not feel positive about the artist’s work in the first place it can also solidify your original thoughts.  I have been fascinated by Jeff Koons who is one of the hottest artists around.  Why?, because I have heard he is a collector of old master paintings and sculpture which I have handled for over half a century and  I know it takes a certain sophisticated and educated taste.   Then why does Koons make oversized balloon like sculpture and this “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988)?  Seeing at the presentation of Koons’ work at the Broad did not provide an answer.

Michael M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles

One room that blew my mind had an oversized painting, to say the least, over 10 x 20 feet by one of my very favorite contemporary artists, Anselm Kiefer.   Some years ago, I spent over 3 hours with a friend in the Kiefer exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.   The Broad painting takes up a whole wall and totally envelopes you.  I felt that I could get lost in the picture!  The painting is called “Deutschlands Geisteshelden” (1973) (Germany’s Spiritual Heroes).  The Broad explains that Kiefer positions the viewer at ”the mouth of a great hall” which includes aspects of the artist’s former studio and a known German hunting Lodge used to store looted art by the Nazis.  You see no art but on the walls the names of German Artists that had figured in this painful chapter of history.  Clearly his sympathies are with the artists.  Here is an image of the painting and yours truly immersed in it.

Michael M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles
Photo: Hunter Stiebel

If you are interested in art and go to museums, you never know what you will find. There will be works you’ll like and those you won’t, but if you don’t make the venture, you will never know.  I found the Broad definitely worth the visit. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Japanese American National Museum

It so happened that my birthday fell during my stay in Los Angeles, and my son, Hunter, knowing that I love Sushi took me to Little Tokyo where on the second floor of a department store complex was a Sushi bar that was absolutely fabulous.  All the chefs and staff were Japanese  as were most of the patrons.  Should you be in L.A. it is called Sushigo55.  It was the real thing right down to the location,  herewith photos of the latter, the restaurant and the beautiful tasting food.




As we were leaving by a different entrance than we came in from, in front of us was The Japanese American National Museum, a museum that was new to me. Of course, I asked Hunter if we could go.  Lunch had been such a perfect setup.  Hunter had another museum surprise for me later in the afternoon, but we had time.

It is a wide open space with several exhibitions going at once, including one on Japanese toys and another on the photographer Kip Fulbeck who has been photographing persons who identify as “hapa”, from the Hawaiin meaning half, part or mixed, that are of Asian/pacific islander decent.   His 15-year project promotes awareness and positive acceptance of multicultural identity.

The exhibition that interested me most was “Common Ground: The Heart of a Community”. Back East we were aware of the prejudice and injustices done to African Americans.  In the Southwest it is the Native Americans and Hispanics who have been given the short end of the stick.  Having just finished the book “Hawaii” by James Michener, I have learned far more about the prejudices of the white population against the Chinese, Japanese and others brought in as indentured servants. This went on well into the 20th century, with the fear that if Hawaii became a state the whites would be ruled by the Japanese, particularly as they were going into business with the Chinese.

“Common Ground” showed hundreds of objects, documents and photographs collected by the museum covering 130 years of the Japanese in America.  Truth be known, it was a specific period, and the one that was covered the best, that grabbed my attention, the persecution of the Japanese during World War II.   From their second generation on, Japanese in the U.S. felt as American as anyone else.  I, the son of German Jews, felt I was American, and said so loudly  from the age of 3.  The prejudice and alienation experienced by Japanese Americans , however, is difficult to fathom.  In the exhibition is this poster.  It shows a man running for his second term in the US. Senate in 1920 saying, “Keep California White”.


At the dawn of World War II young Japanese Americans understood that they had to prove their patriotism, but they were not allowed to join the armed forces.   Anglos felt they were all probably spies or Japan sympathizers.  In Hawaii, however, nearly 40% of the population was Japanese American and if they had been incarcerated it would have crippled the local economy.  So instead they declared martial law and continuously harassed the community. With Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 10 weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941, the way  was cleared for the eventual internment of 120,000 Japanese, well over half being U.S. citizens.  By 1943,however, they were allowed to  form a regiment and fight in Italy, France and Germany.  That was the 442nd Infantry Regiment out of Hawaii.  The 442nd is the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare with 9,486 purple hearts, 8 Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Medals of Honor!

These were some of the thoughts going through my head as I walked around the show.  But there was so much I did not know.  For instance, that there was a large Japanese community in the state of Utah brought in to fill railroad construction gangs in the early 20th century.  Remember, going West was our “manifest destiny”.   Out of Utah’s total population of 373,000 thousand in 1910, 2,110 were Japanese. This had grown to 8,000 when the Japanese internment camp called Topaz opened in 1942.  Here you see their piled up suitcases. They were only allowed one each.


The exhibition has an original internment barracks   It is from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center where more that 10,000 Japanese American, rounded up from the entire West Coast, were incarcerated. This barracks is 20 x 16 feet and was intended for a family of 2 or 3, or more bachelors.  Around it were labels with quotes. From a former inmate, George Iseri, “The most important thing I brought was my baseball mitt and shoes. Only one suitcase.  Oh, yes I remember”. And from a visitor, Bacon Sakani  “ … by taking a person inside that barrack [s], you can explain what happened to us better.  Just talking about it is not enough”. This latter is a good thing for all teachers to remember.  Here is an image of building a barrack and one of the barracks in the museum.



We so often forget and have to be reminded that when citizens everywhere get scared and feel threatened they close down and fear all foreigners.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Getty Visit

After my conference in Los Angeles I was free to visit museums and, being already in the neighborhood, I went over to The Getty Center.  In my young professional life the Getty Villa that now just houses the Antiquities’ Collection was the entire museum.  Since J. Paul Getty (known simply as Paul Getty) had not been back to the States since 1952 he never even saw the Villa which was completed in 1974! 

In the early 1970’s I remember one curator who said that Getty was so tight with his fortune that she had to buy her own pencils! But when Getty died in 1976 at the age of 83, it was a whole new ball game.  He left between 600 and 700 million dollars including 12% of Getty Oil stock to the institution.  This already made the Getty the richest museum in the country.  After years of legal fights between Getty’s heirs, and a dirty takeover fight in which Texaco finally won, the Getty became worth twice as much.  Today, it has an endowment of over 6 billion dollars!

Money causes its own problems and the Trust must by law spend a percentage of its worth every year. It therefore had to expand rapidly, adding a conservation institute and research institute, as well as other entities.  At one time they wasted their time and money trying to come up with a universal vocabulary for art.  One example: would a French 18th century chest of drawers be called a ‘commode’ (the French word) by all art historians or something else!  The expenditure everyone has seen one way or another is the Getty Center building atop a hill in Brentwood (part of L.A.).  The architect, an award winning one, of course, was Richard Meier and the museum complex opened in 1997 at a cost of about one billion dollars.

I don’t mind saying I initially hated the architecture and wasn’t a fan of the architect personally either. My first visit was shortly before the Getty Center opened and I was there with the President’s Cultural Property Committee out of Washington D. C.  Here we are on the plaza with a number of arts ministers from Central America who were more interested in what money they could get out of the Getty Trust than speaking to us about Cultural Property issues.


Time passes, and a couple of decades down the road and I must admit it is an oasis, a kind of art “never, never land”.   After the tram ride up the hillside and steps to climb (there is an elevator) you arrive at a large entry hall and then emerge onto the main plaza a complex called Buildings 1-4 or North, South, East and West.  I still got lost there but you can regain your bearings by following the art which is divided by periods and subject matter.  It is all very dramatic and makes the Getty a definite destination.  Personally, I come for the art and that is stupendous too.  Here a partial view of the plaza.


In the 1990’s there was a large influx of great curators that the Getty culled from museums around the country.  If you couldn’t find your favorite curator at your local museum, he or she had probably moved to the Getty. It paid off.  Getty was a passionate collector in the fields of Antiquities and French 18th Century Decorative Arts but not so much in Old Master paintings, one of the areas that the museum has developed since. The first director of the “New” Getty swore they would never collect photography until they bought their first marvelous collection thanks to a curator who came from the Metropolitan Museum. 

I had not been at the Getty for a very long time but knew the core collection, so I focused on newer acquisitions.  A good friend and one of the few from my active years who is still there, Charissa Bremer-David, Curator of Sculpture & Decorative Arts, insisted that I see the newly acquired Rothschild Pentateuch, which means literally "five books” in Greek, referring to what we call the Old Testament.  It includes some of the bible’s most famous stories and some or the oldest codes of law, with of course, the Ten Commandments. It belonged to the French/German Baroness Adelaide Rothchild who donated it to the State Library in Frankfurt am Main.  In 1950 it became part of an exchange for real estate between the German Government and a German-Jewish family that had relocated to New York.  In other words, a family that had lost its property because of Hitler accepted the manuscript as part payment for the loss.  Then the Getty acquired it…. such is the strange life of objects.  It is shown in a room with other Getty Manuscripts. The book was open to the Menorah of the Tabernacle, a page from Leviticus.


This was part of a single gallery exhibition called.  Art of Three Faiths showing examples of the Torah, The Bible and the Qur’an.  I am, however, just going to show my favorite image among these Getty manuscripts which comes right out of my teenage fantasy.  It is part of a secular manuscript done in Augsburg around 1560-70.  The book in which this appears would have been created for the occasion of a joust, illustrating the participants, their armor and heraldry.


I have always admired 17th century German Ivory Carving and in the Getty galleries I came across this covered goblet with mythological scenes created by one of the best artists of this technique, Balthasar Griessmann, when he was about 60 years old, around 1680.  Here, the procession honors Bacchus, Roman god of wine.  All the gods represented in this piece are so magnificently carved that you want to touch them… guess that is why the museum keeps them out of reach in a case!



Further along I discovered a small painting acquired just last year. It is by Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, (1503-1540).  This image of the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, dating 1535-40, is clearly meant as a private devotional work. Most unusually, the painting was done in oil on 7 sheets of paper which were then laid down on a panel.  The technique and the incredibly well-preserved condition gives an immediacy that jumps out at you.


“Tell us about J. Paul Getty” is the visitors’ most frequent request, Charissa told me over a lovely lunch in the museum’s nicest dining room.  So, after all these years, they have established a small area for an audio-visual display where you can read articles and listen to snippets about Paul Getty’s life.  It took me back to my own experiences of the man, and to the manor house in England where he proudly showed me the model of the original villa where small models of the works of art acquired were placed.

For me revisiting the Getty Center was surprisingly rewarding, seeing great art in a contemporary environment in the company of an old friend and memories of Getty himself.

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

NWL (Nazi War Loot)

For over the past two decades I have used the initials NWL to stand for Nazi War Loot.
To give you the scale of looting during World War II the Nazi’s stole 26,000 railway cars full of art from France alone.

My involvement started in 1996, when one evening on the corner of Madison Avenue and 79th Street in New York City, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, stopped me in the street as he was leaving, and I was entering a gallery opening. He wanted provenance documentation. The Met had just made a much ballyhooed acquisition of a small medieval boxwood Madonna and child attributed to Niclaus Gerhaert, Austria, circa 1470.  Because of its 3 million dollar price tag and knowing that my family gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel had once handled it, I had already looked it up in our archive and found we had sold it in 1948 from a Rothschild collection to a German dealer for $300.  So my response to the director, who I thought was joking, was “Philippe, you paid 3 million and we sold it for $300 and you want me to do the work?.”  Sure, enough the next morning I heard from an old friend, the chief curator of the medieval department, William Wixom, asking me the same question.  So I went back into our archive and gave him the details including the date of purchase from Baroness Clarice de Rothschild in 1947, shortly after the Baroness had recovered the family collection pillaged by Goering for Hitler’s projected museum in Linz, Germany.  We had sold it to Galerie Böhler in Munich. Almost a half century later, one of Böhler’s heirs sold the piece to the Met. Even though my father had told me that  Julius Böhler was always friendly to my family and the Jews, he is thought today to have been  one of Hitler’s art dealers. Only when I learned this did I understand the reason for the extra research.


Then at the end of 1998 there was a conference in Washington D.C. based on the following: “In developing a consensus on non-binding principles to assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art, the Conference recognizes that among participating nations there are differing legal systems and that countries act within the context of their own laws.”  But they came up with concepts that countries to a greater and lesser extent have tried to follow, including the identification of works or art whose provenance between 1933 to 1945 was in doubt.

From then on, I received continuous requests from Museums to do provenance research in our archives.  I started out doing it without charge but it took up more and more time and when we moved to Santa Fe I had to hire someone to do the research in in New York, so I began to charge a fee.

Part of the Rosenberg & Stiebel Archive

I got deeper into the question of Nazi War Loot (NWL) in 2005 when Markus Stötzel, a lawyer  from Marburg, Germany, got in touch and told me of possible NWL that had been taken from my family by the Nazis when they had been put out of business twice in Frankfurt where the most virulent of Jew haters was Mayor.    More was lost after they had fled to Amsterdam, and again the Nazis came and they had to flee to the United States.

 Three years later I became one of the litigants in the case of the Guelph Treasure  against Germany and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, established by the German Government in 1957.  This unparalled collection of medieval ecclesiastical objects, known in German as the Welfenschatz, is now housed in the Bode Museum, in in Berlin.  It was purchased in the late 1920’s from a noble family by the firms of three  Jewish art dealers in Frankfurt who were later induced to sell most of the collection to the Dresdner Bank for a fraction of its value. The bank was acting  for Hermann Goering who intended the Guelph Treasure to be a birthday gift to Hitler.

Gallery with the Guelph Treasure, Berlin

Recently, I was invited to attend a conference in Los Angeles called “The Future of Nazi Looted Art Recovery in the US and Abroad  It was an opportunity to meet Nicholas O’Donnell of Sullivan and Worcester in Boston, one of the three lawyers working on the Guelph treasure case that I had not  met before, Here is an image of O’Donnell (right) and Markus Stötzel at a press conference on the Guelph Treasure case in Berlin in 2015.  Behind them is an image of the three partners in the purchase consortium.

CBS News & Getty Images

The conference was arranged by the L.A. Law Firm Cyprus LLP and lasted a full day from 8am to 6pm.  Nicholas O’Donnell was on one of the panels and he did a short summary of our case. Another panelist I had never met but was a friend on Face Book, was Simon Goodman, author of a book I highly recommend, “The Orpheus Clock” about the search for his family’s looted collection.  Also, former generations of our family were friends and had lost touch over time.

Simon Goodman with The Orpheus Clock

The subjects of the conference included:  1. “Finding and Recovering Nazi Looted Art”
2. “Bringing Claims” 3. “What Can Museums Do” and 4. “What Can the Art Market Do”.  
Also, discussed were issues of litigation (not recommended) and mediation when there is hope of avoiding the former. 

Out of these headings came some interesting and some arcane material.  Under the subject of ways to find evidence of your claim, Professor and author Jonathan Petropolous explained how valuable archives were.  Once they have been opened by the government to the researcher, the archive is only as good as its “Finding Aid’, otherwise you might spend your life there without ever finding what you are looking for.  Another issue that was brought to the fore was that museums wish to make as much information public as their lawyers will allow because they are in conflict wanting to be open but with a competing desire to hold on to an object they believe they acquired in good faith and with good title.  Nicholas O’Donnell has written a book, “A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle over Nazi-Looted Art” dealing with some of these complicated issues.

You cannot imagine the variety of circumstances that have resulted in a cadre of lawyers entering this niche of restitution.  There are situations such as the individual who emerges from a concentration camp and then finds he has lost his home because he was  in arrears on the mortgage.  How was he expected to keep up with the payments?  What about an individual in Austria who retrieved a collection from the salt mines and then was charged export taxes to leave the country with it. 

So many stories!  Was the conference as exciting as it might sound?  Most definitely not!  Was it educational from the point of view of hearing from fascinating people including those from museums and counsel from other countries?   Most definitely so!