Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Behind the Scenes Glimpse

People always wonder what an art dealer does besides buy and sell.  The first, of course, is necessary and the second is fervently sought after but there are many other demands on our time.

Much of that occurs in fielding inquiries which we often enjoy doing but in the last 15 or so years a great deal is in provenance research.  For me it started in 1996 as we were about to go into a gallery exhibition opening the director of the Metropolitan Museum at the time stopped me.  He said to me “You sold that small wooden renaissance sculpture of the Madonna and Child attributed to Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leiden that the Met just acquired and we want you to write up it’s provenance for us”.  I said, “Philippe we sold that in 1947 (when I was 3 years old) for $3,000 and the Met just paid a reported $3 million and you want me to do the research on the piece?”  He replied that $3,000 then was the equivalent of $3 million in 1996.  Well, Philippe de Montebello was not considered the great museum director that he was for his currency conversion skills and I thought he was teasing me.  But sure enough the next day I had a phone call from the chairman of the Medieval department, William Wixom, at the Metropolitan making the same request.  It was not as if I could say “no” so I went to our warehouse archives and dug out the papers from the Vienna Rothschilds giving the details on the original purchase and sale.

This was the very beginning of the search for Nazi War Loot.  The art that the Nazis seized during World War II and that had not found it’s way back to its rightful owners.  The period in question are the years that Hitler was in power from 1933 to 1945.  Luckily, we have archival material but since the firm had to first leave Germany in a hurry, and then leave the Netherlands even quicker, much was lost.

If this happened once in a great while it would not be so difficult, but this summer more than 15 years later I have received one or two enquiries a week, and often from museum individuals who have not done the basic research, such as finding their original invoice which might have the information they are looking for right there in front of them.  I also had an enquiry recently from an auction house that wanted me to do research on the possibility that since we had handled works of art from the Rothschilds, it was not impossible that we might have handled this specific painting as well (we hadn’t).  Philippe de Montebello had an expression that I always loved.  He would say that he did certain things for “proven friends of the museum” and I like to subscribe to a similar code.

If I am asked by a curator I know who has been helpful to us in the past I usually do the research without complaint but if it is a person hired by the museum just to do this kind of work and they do not even know where to start, if it was acquired more than a decade ago, considering the time involved on my or my staff’s part, I will tell them that I charge $250 for each search whether I turn something up or not.  I had several curators at one museum who kept pestering me with provenance questions urge me to continue to charge because they felt badly about how many times they came back to the well.

It has been suggested to me by lawyers and family that if we no longer had the archive we would no longer have to look anything up, but then you can become the victim of suspicion that you cannot prove is wrong, even though you are sure it is.  In all but one case we have been able to prove the provenance of every work of art, and that was not a question of Nazi War Loot but a piece of porcelain stolen from a European museum a few years after WWII that we had purchased from a long-time European colleague. We settled reasonably and amicably with the museum.

Another example of the typically frustrating enquiry occurred several years ago regarding a set of paintings by an 18th century Italian artist that had been sold by a German Jewish banker living in Switzerland and our German Jewish firm in Amsterdam at the time.  The banker owned this group of works and he gave these to our firm on consignment against a loan with a right to sell.  We succeeded in selling them to museums and private collectors in the States.  Suddenly his nephew appears 60 years later and says that his uncle’s pictures constituted Nazi war loot!  By a total fluke the documentation had been saved from the archives in Holland and was in our archive.  All the details were there, including the consignment/loan agreements and bank drafts.  On top of this the brother of the owner lived in Amsterdam at the time and oversaw the entire transaction!

While there are many legitimate claims regarding Nazi War Loot, a claim alone is not sufficient and I am glad that I can back up my family’s good name. 

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