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!