News Reports:

Ante Topic Mimara,"The Master Swindler of Yugoslavia", by Konstantin Akinsha


Ante Topic Mimara, "The Master Swindler of Yugoslavia"
ARTnews September 2001

By Konstantin Akinsha

After World War II, Ante Topic Mimara tricked Americans supervising the return of displaced art into turning over to Yugoslavia property that may have belonged to Holocaust victims. American officials covered up the blunder, and some works ended up in museums in Belgrade and Zagreb.

By December 1948, the work at the Central Collecting Point in Munich was in its last stages. Hundreds of thousands of looted and displaced artworks recovered in the U.S. occupation zones of Germany and Austria had been brought here, researched, and returned to their countries of origin. Most of the claims had been processed when Ante Topic Mimara turned up, claiming to be the Yugoslav government’s representative in charge of restitution.

A few months later, Mimara presented a list of 166 objects and objets d’art that he claimed had been looted from Yugoslavia by the Nazis. By the time the Americans discovered that the claims had been fabricated, Mimara—and the objects—had disappeared.

Only then did the Americans discover who the Yugoslav mystery man really was: a collector, dealer, painter, restorer, forger, alleged art thief, and probable spy.

Today, more than a half century after the end of World War II, Ante Topic Mimara is attracting attention again. An ARTnews investigation in Washington, D.C., Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Austria has revealed that more than a dozen of the objects turned over to him, some of which came from victims of the Holocaust, are in museums in Belgrade and Zagreb.

The artworks delivered to Mimara in 1949 were forgotten. Their rightful owners didn’t even know that the objects had been in the hands of American occupation forces in Munich or that they had been turned over to a fraudulent claimant. Nor did the owners know that American officials, after trying in vain to retrieve the property, had decided to cover up the whole embarrassing affair because they feared political and legal ramifications.

Today, cultural officials in Yugoslavia and Croatia are willing to investigate the problem.

In Zagreb, Branka Sulc, an assistant to the minister of culture of Croatia, recently expressed the Croatian government’s willingness to research the fate of the erroneously restituted objects, with the help of documents given to her by ARTnews.

In Belgrade, Jovan Despotovic, deputy minister of culture of Yugoslavia, told ARTnews that his country doesn’t need cultural property it doesn’t rightfully own. Could the artworks fraudulently restituted to Yugoslavia from the Central Collecting Point in Munich be returned to their rightful owners more than a half century after the end of World War II? he was asked. Yes, he responded. "Let’s start to work."

Ante Topic Mimara’s monument is a museum in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, formerly a part of Yugoslavia. Behind the Mimara Museum’s imposing neoclassical facade is a shrine to the mystery man who used many names and told many versions of his life story. In a corner of one of the galleries, which is lavishly decorated with old furniture and objets d’art that belonged to Mimara, is a glass case containing his death mask and a cast of his hands. The bronze face is smiling.

Mimara had reason to smile. The Yugoslav government paid him very well for his art collection and opened the museum with great fanfare in 1987 as the "Zagreb Louvre," only to have it exposed as a jumble of fakes and wishful attributions. On a recent visit by this reporter, the galleries were almost deserted: a few visitors wandered about disconsolately, looking at paintings labeled Rembrandt, Raphael, and Rubens, many of them barbarously "restored" by the donor.

When the museum opened, officials insisted that the collection of 3,600 objects was worth $1 billion. It contained, they said, masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Velázquez, among others. But Andrew Decker, who wrote an article about the museum for ARTnews (Summer 1987), reported that art historians had dismissed Mimara’s collection as mostly fake and second-rate. (Many of the attributions have since been downgraded.)

Mimara, Decker reported, had made an extraordinary deal with the government when he agreed to give his artworks to the Republic of Croatia in 1973. In exchange for the collection, he received an annuity of $100,000, as well as a house in Zagreb and another on the coast. After his death, his widow, Wiltrud Topic Mersmann, who had spent only a small part of each year with him, was to receive an annual $50,000. Mimara died in January 1986. Topic Mersmann, 82, now lives in a hilltop castle on the outskirts of Salzburg.

Museum director Tugomir Luksic was one of the original cataloguers of the collection. Interviewed recently by ARTnews, Luksic was unwilling to believe that the founder had been guilty of any misdeeds during the years he spent in Germany. According to Luksic , Mimara never gave the museum staff any information about the provenance of his collection. When he was asked, Luksic said, he would answer that it didn’t matter. Anyone who could prove that an object legally belonged to him could take it, Mimara would add.

One object on display in the museum can be matched to the list of those erroneously restituted to Mimara in Munich. It is a painted-glass Venetian wedding cup, which was dated to the 17th century when it was in the collection of Hermann Goering; Mimara dated it to the 15th century and "improved" it by adding a gilded silver base.

More works from the Collecting Point made their way to Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. The National Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, a beautiful early-20th-century building, was in a sorry state last spring. Most of the galleries were closed, and the best part of the collection—including pictures by Mondrian and Renoir, as well as important archeological objects—had been crated and deposited for safekeeping in bomb shelters.

A former curator of the museum agreed to meet this reporter on the basis of anonymity. The curator compared photos taken at the Central Collecting Point with reproductions in National Museum publications. Until the 1960s, the curator said, the paintings turned over to Mimara in Munich were not included in the inventory of the National Museum and were not exhibited. Museum officials knew that the "restituted" paintings had a dark past, but they didn’t know the details.

Two of them—a view of Tivoli attributed to Hubert Robert and a portrait of a girl attributed to Albert Cuyp—are from the collection of Baron Maurice de Rothschild (Paris). They were confiscated by the Nazis, taken to the depot in the Jeu de Paume, and then chosen for Hermann Goering, who was planning to turn his estate, Carinhall, into a museum.

Other paintings in Belgrade came from France, but their prewar owners are not known. Among them are a sketch of the Roman emperor Galba, attributed to Rubens; Dance Around the Golden Calf, attributed to the School of Poussin; and a huge canvas by the Dutch Mannerist Joachim Wtewael, The Fall of Man. All three were destined for the museum Hitler planned to build in his home town of Linz, Austria. A landscape with cow by Corot was acquired in France by the Berlin art dealer Hans Lange. A painting of musicians attributed to Caravaggio was confiscated by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia.

An impressive part of the works turned over to Mimara from the Collecting Point consisted of paintings that came from Italy. At least four of them are in the National Museum in Belgrade: Portrait of Queen Christina of Sweden, by Titian; Madonna and Child with Donor, by Tintoretto; and Holy Pilgrim and St. Sebastian, attributed to Carpaccio. They belonged to Goering, who had bought them from Count Contini Bonacossi, a well-known dealer in Florence who sold many pictures (and, according to reports, many possible forgeries) to American collectors before the war.

A view of the Grand Canal attributed to Canaletto and a view of San Marco attributed to Francesco Guardi were once owned by Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich.

Two other Italian paintings in Belgrade were bought by Goering from dealers in Florence: a Madonna and Child by Veneziano and a Madonna and Child with Angels attributed to the School of Ferrara.

The National Museum wasn’t the only repository in Belgrade of erroneously restituted pictures from the Collecting Point. Some were taken to the White Palace, which belonged to the Yugoslav kings before the war, became the lavish residence of President Tito, and was used by President Milosevic. Among the works kept in the palace, according to the former National Museum curator, is Sailing Boat by the French 19th-century painter Félix Ziem, which once belonged to a Nazi Party organization in Berchtesgaden.

Many of the erroneously restituted paintings have disappeared. Among them are works by Rosa Bonheur, Joos van Cleve, Lorenzo di Credi, Henri-Joseph Harpignies, George Morland, and Ferdinand Waldmüller. One of the gems was a landscape watercolor by Constable, confiscated from the Rothschild collection in Vienna. Another, of a couple playing musical instruments, by Frans van Mieres, came from the Jacques Goudstikker collection in Amsterdam.

Who was Ante Topic Mimara? A biography by Vesna Kusin, published in Zagreb in 1987, says that Ante Topic was born on April 7, 1898, to a poor farmer in the village of Lecevica Koruscica, in the Dalmatia Zagora region of Croatia, which was then part of the Hapsburg Empire. He used the name Matutin (meaning "son of Mate"), perhaps to distinguish himself from other Ante Topics in the town. At some point in his life, he also adopted the name Mimara, which comes from the Turkish word for "builder." He served in the Austrian army during World War I, was wounded, and was taken as a prisoner of war to Rome, where he became a pupil and assistant of Antonio Mancini, an Italian portrait painter.

Another version, according to Kusin, is that Ante Topic Mimara was in reality Mirko Maratovic, born March 16, 1897, in Split, Croatia. During the 1920s, Maratovic operated under the name Count Mirko Pyelik-Inna and orchestrated the theft of a unique ivory diptych from the Zagreb cathedral. The diptych was sold to the Cleveland Museum in 1928 and returned in 1936. Presumably, Maratovic bought the papers of Ante Topic, after the real Topic died in a military hospital in Rome, and assumed his identity. Maratovic then added to Topic ’s name a nickname, "Mimara," which was the abbreviation of his own name, MI-rko MARA-tovic.

Mimara’s widow, Wiltrud Topic Mersmann, and their son, Nikolaus Topic-Matutin, were interviewed in July in Topic-Matutin’s law office in Salzburg. Topic-Matutin said that Kusin’s first version of his father’s biography was accurate. He said that Mimara’s real name was Ante Topic-Matutin. He adopted "Mimara" as a "nom de plume" when he started to paint, but he never told anyone what it meant, according to his son.

During the 1920s and ’30s, Mimara traveled extensively in Europe, living for a time in Paris, where he encountered Josip Broz Tito, the future president of Yugoslavia, according to some sources. Germany, however, remained his main residence. He spent most of his time in Berlin and Munich and was active as a painter and a restorer. He claimed to have met Hitler in 1927, a meeting that allegedly secured him the Führer’s protection later.

Mimara began collecting art in the late 1930s. He asserted later that he had never bought artworks confiscated from Jews, but recent research calls into question the truth of that statement. Decker reported rumors that "much of Mimara’s collection was acquired from Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe. Mimara was in Germany at the outbreak of the war, when thousands of sales, some forced and others expedient, made it possible for profiteers to buy items at extremely low prices. Mimara never denied the rumors, saying only that if anyone could prove ownership of works in his collection he would relinquish them."

According to Mimara himself, he was very close to Hermann Goering and acted as the Reichsmarschall’s art adviser and court painter. He claimed that Goering even commissioned him to paint a portrait of Hitler in 1943. Mimara recollected this friendship proudly, but there is no evidence of it. His name is not mentioned in the reports of the Office of Strategic Services, Art Looting Investigation Unit. Nor is there any evidence for Mimara’s later claim that he participated in the anti-Nazi resistance and was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1942.

According to his widow, Mimara remained in Berlin during the war. He had a villa in the prosperous suburb of Schlachtensee, as well as an apartment in town, near Charlottenburg, and a studio, where he painted and stored his own works. The studio was bombed in 1944, Topic Mersmann said, and all his own paintings were destroyed. But his collection, which he kept in various places—the suburban villa, Lörrach, and Antwerp—escaped destruction.

In 1946 the Allied Control Council of Germany accredited Mimara to act as an adviser to the Yugoslav Military Mission, although his colleagues there had no idea who in Belgrade had appointed him to that position. As an adviser on restitution, Mimara was responsible not only for restitution issues but also for the return of displaced persons. Accreditation brought with it a diplomatic passport, which enabled him to travel around Europe frequently and easily. According to a Yugoslav diplomat who encountered Mimara in Germany, he traveled "in Switzerland, France, Austria, Holland and everywhere else. Diplomatic passport helped him immensely to cross borders and to smuggle art."

Collecting Point personnel in Munich, where Mimara turned up in December 1948, were mystified by him. On at least one occasion, he appeared in the flamboyant uniform of a full colonel in the Yugoslav army (although there is no evidence that he held any military rank), but usually he sported civilian clothes that attracted notice. "He was always well-dressed and rather over-dressed," wearing a beret, camel’s hair coat, and patent-leather shoes, one American official remembered. He was of medium height, with a smooth, round face, a dark complexion, a black beard, and black hair worn long and slicked down with pomade. He looked "well fed." His nails were well manicured and his hands perfumed. To some, he seemed charming and gregarious; to others, he was too fluent, too suave, to be plausible. Mimara had plenty of cash, which it was assumed came from black-market operations, and threw it around lavishly, hosting parties at which the liquor flowed freely. He was unusually active; most representatives of the various missions were assigned to one of the four collecting points and stayed in place, but Ante Topic, as he called himself during this period, was always on the go, traveling constantly from Munich to Wiesbaden, Stuttgart, or Berlin.

Mimara introduced himself as the head of the Yugoslav Restitution Mission in Karlsruhe when he paid his first visit to the Central Collecting Point, accompanied by a representative of the Office of Military Government for Bavaria. Stefan P. Munsing, head of the American Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section, reported to the chief Military Government restitution officer on their visit. Mimara was carrying 13 books listing cultural objects looted from Yugoslavia, for which he said he was searching. Munsing had bad news for him. He brought out an icon that he knew to be from Yugoslavia and told Mimara about two packages of "household items," but there were no other Yugoslav objects in the Collecting Point.

Mimara was disappointed, but he admitted that it would require a lot of work to check his lists against the objects stored in the Collecting Point, Munsing wrote, because the lists didn’t contain enough information about the lost objects.

"These lists and claims should have been acted upon at an earlier date," Munsing reported to Otto F. Yanisch in the Office of Military Government for Bavaria. "We don’t have the time now if we are to complete our mission here per schedule discussed." His personnel were working against a deadline. They were rushing to close the American collecting points by the end of 1949, after which date responsibility for restituting the remaining artworks was to be transferred to the Germans.

Munsing didn’t think Mimara would submit claims for the Yugoslav material on time, but he was wrong. On March 31, l949, he received a letter from Topic, on stationery with the typed heading "Yugoslav representative for Restitution Fine Arts and Monuments." Mimara was sending him "7 lists of items found as corresponding to Yugoslav claims for restitution of objects." The lists were for paintings, icons, tapestries and textiles, numismatic collections, household silver, and objets d’art.

Mimara had been able to compile the lists so quickly because he had an invaluable accomplice, American investigators later determined. Their suspicions fell on a young German art historian, Dr. Wiltrud Mersmann, who worked as a junior curator at the Central Collecting Point from March 4, 1946, to July 1, 1949. With her help, the investigators concluded, Mimara manufactured convincing claims for artworks. (Their partnership proved enduring: the two were married in 1957.)

According to documents in the National Archives, the investigators determined that "Dr. Mersmann placed many items into Yugoslav hands despite her own findings that proof of Yugoslav ownership was lacking." With the precise information she supplied, Mimara simply manufactured Yugoslav claims "based on his information as to descriptions, measurements etc."

The 166 objects mentioned in the seven lists—including 56 paintings—were released to Mimara in late May and early June of 1949. For each of the four shipments, Munsing and Mimara, on behalf of the Yugoslav government, signed a "Receipt for Cultural Objects." The artworks were loaded onto trucks and disappeared. By the time the Americans figured out what had happened, Mimara, too, had vanished. At about the same time, most American activities at the Collecting Point came to an end.

Wiltrud Topic Mersmann is a retired art historian who taught at the University of Salzburg and wrote scholarly works on medieval art. She is small and sprightly and still strikingly attractive. Mersmann denied that she had helped Mimara fabricate claims. "Absolutely not!" she said. "In the time that we met, we became friends, and for this I was very cautious. I took every precaution. I asked Munsing everything—what I should do every step of the way."

Mersmann said she didn’t know where Mimara got the information with which to fabricate his claims, but she wasn’t surprised that she had been implicated. "People become friends, and it is natural that people start talking about them," she said.

"Everyone suggested the worst things," her son said, because "they had a love affair."

Her only involvement, he insisted, was that she saw the shipments off from the Munich train station. She said that the train cars were sealed and that Mimara didn’t accompany the shipment. "He didn’t care anything about Belgrade. In fact, it was only much later, in the ’70s, that he returned to Yugoslavia."

Could Mersmann explain how the claims had been fabricated? She answered that it was Munsing’s responsibility. "The decision was with Munsing. . . . Munsing said, ‘Let’s let the Yugoslavs have something, do justice to the Yugoslavs as well.’ After all, they were not so well equipped with lists, photographs, et cetera, like the French and the Dutch. Some of the Jewish collectors in Europe had such nice lists.

"I certainly feel today," she concluded, "that the Collecting Point, as a whole, didn’t make a mistake to give the last things to the Yugoslavs. The Collecting Point has done much justice in its work. That is why art historians were working there."

Observers thought that Mimara’s disappearance may have been connected with more than his activities at the Collecting Point. By 1949 he had begun to adorn his typewritten stationery with a new title: "Adviser in Restitution Affairs to the Yugoslav Government, Section: Fine Arts and Precious Metals." Mimara had become involved with the recovery from Germany of silver, platinum, and zinc removed from Yugoslavia by the Nazis. American officials believed that he had diverted some of the silver to a Swiss bank.

His operations on this front were so extensive that the Yugoslav government started to hunt for him and asked the Americans for assistance, as documents show. The Americans weren’t helpful. They had no jurisdiction in the matter and pointed out what the Yugoslavs already knew—that "Mr. Topic’s whereabouts are apparently unknown."

Nikolaus Topic-Matutin scorned the idea that his father was a spy. He was "the most unsuitable person to be a spy," Topic-Matutin said. "He was a man with very strong emotions but not intellectual sharpness and clearness." But "he liked to mystify people."

A definitive answer to the question may not be possible until the UDB, the Yugoslav intelligence service, opens its files.

When it became clear to the Americans that only three of the objects transferred to Mimara belonged to Yugoslavia, the authorities, including the restitution specialist Ardelia Hall, of the State Department and the CIA, began to look for him and the artworks. On June 1, 1950, the Office of Economic Affairs of the Property Division of the Office of Military Government sent a letter to the chief of the Yugoslav Military Mission in Berlin stating that objects delivered "by mistake" had to be returned by the government that had received them.

A few days later, William G. Daniels, chief of the Property Division, notified the State Department of the incident, including Mersmann’s role. The French had claimed paintings, Daniels wrote, that had been wrongly restituted to Yugoslavia, and as a result, notice had been served on the Yugoslav mission that "we require immediate return . . . of more than one hundred valuable items restituted in error to that government in June 1949." These shipments had taken place during a period of confusion in Munich, the letter continued, while the Collecting Point was closing down.

The Yugoslav government was also investigating Mimara’s illegal activities. On June 4, 1951, Milan Bartos, chief legal counsel of the Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs, summarized the findings of an investigation of Mimara in a document called "Case of Mate Topic ." The document described the situation whereby 166 artworks had been wrongly restituted from the Central Collecting Point and gave, in addition, a detailed account of numerous cases of misconduct connected to the restitution of precious metals to Yugoslavia. Mimara had reason to fear ramifications from both American intelligence and the Yugoslav Interior Ministry.

While the State Department was seeking answers from the Yugoslav Military Mission concerning the fate of the erroneously restituted artworks, the Mimara scandal grew. In March 1952, the U.S. government art intelligence officer Edgar Breitenbach, who had observed the activities of Mimara and Mersmann at the Central Collecting Point, wrote from the Civil Affairs Division, Public Information Office, that the Yugoslav case continued to be a cause of trouble. Claims had been received from German owners who had lost their property, but the Americans couldn’t prove that their objects had been erroneously restituted to Yugoslavia without knowing "what exactly the Yugoslav Government claimed in each instance." In early April, however, Breitenbach had to inform German authorities that the objects were gone. "Since our attempts to have the paintings returned to us were without result," he concluded, "the objects must be considered lost."

Concern over the erroneous restitution didn’t end there. In 1954 the State Department had to deal with the problem again. The French and Italian governments had addressed Washington with questions about the fate of their cultural property. In response, the State Department cabled U.S. embassies in Rome, Belgrade, and Bonn, stating that "interested inquirers should be reminded" that cultural restitutions made by the U.S. government were subject to review if counterclaims were presented and that governments which had received objects that were subsequently shown to have been delivered in error were required to return them.

The State Department had no idea whether the artworks transferred to Mimara had ever reached Yugoslavia. Numerous inquiries were addressed to the Yugoslav government, but it never replied. Finally, on March 15, 1954, the State Department instructed the American embassy in Belgrade to ask Yugoslav officials if the objects had been received.

The embassy replied that Mimara had not returned to Yugoslavia and "was suing the Yugoslav Government to obtain reimbursement for his expenses as Yugoslav representative." In fact, Mimara was withholding a bar of platinum from the Yugoslav government until he was paid.

Further inquiries were fruitless. The Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no idea where Mimara was and professed ignorance about the erroneous restitution, the embassy informed the State Department in May 1954. Efforts to locate the objects in Belgrade museums also came to nothing.

The CIA had better luck. In December 1955, CIA officials notified the State Department that they had turned up information about Mimara, although they had no idea where he was. According to the CIA report, Mimara had been in Montevideo, Uruguay, two years earlier, in August 1953. He had approached the Uruguayan education ministry with a proposition: "he would lend the ministry an art collection reportedly worth some U.S. $13 million for a period of six years at a term charge of one-half percent of the declared value," the report stated. He claimed that the collection consisted of pictures and other art objects he had owned before the war.

Mimara said that he was an "anti-Titoist" who had fled Yugoslavia following the rise of the Tito regime. He said that he wanted his art collection delivered to Montevideo, where he intended to exhibit it. He thought his collection would be safe in South America "in the event of a future armed conflict in Europe."

The most surprising statement in the CIA report concerned the "intelligence" trace left by Mimara in Europe. The CIA informed the State Department that, according to an official Swiss source, Mimara was the most active Yugoslav intelligence agent in the American occupation zone of Germany. He had traveled extensively in the British and French zones "under the assumed names of PASKO, ZGLADO, and MIMARAOVIC." In 1946, according to the Swiss source, Mimara had been arrested in Germany in possession of foreign currency and gold that were apparently destined for "Eastern European centers (presumably intelligence centers)." The Swiss source was correct: Mimara had been arrested in the French zone in 1945 on charges of currency speculation. The West German intelligence service also had a file on Mimara, who they believed was a Yugoslav spy.

Mimara was finally located in Tangier, Morocco. Tangier at the time was a free port, an international city governed by an allied commission. Mimara had arrived there from Bremen in April 1955, bringing with him "various paintings and objects of art which were insured with the American Express Company in the amount of two million dollars," according to a report written in December by C. Vaughan Ferguson, a chargé d’affaires in the American Legation. Mimara had applied for a residence permit and told authorities that he wanted to open a gallery to display his art. He told Colonel Gerald Richardson, the chief of the Sûreté, that he had chosen Tangier as a place of residence "for the reason of personal tranquillity, since plagiary, retouching and other manipulations of paintings are closely watched by all the other police of European countries. Furthermore, his name as a collector is completely unknown in authorized circles."

Mimara, Ferguson continued, was installed in a lavishly furnished apartment on Rue de Paris, where he displayed 40 catalogues of his artworks. He wanted to remain in Tangier, but he had entered the zone on a false passport and was refused a residence permit. He left and took his art collection with him. According to Ferguson, Richardson was convinced that the collection had been stolen or looted from Europe.

The legation obtained 18 photographs of Mimara’s apartment, but none of the artworks erroneously restituted from the Central Collecting Point appeared in them. Richardson noted that a large part of Mimara’s collection was still stored in Antwerp.

Mimara told legation officials that all the objects the Americans had transferred to him in 1949 had been loaded onto trucks and escorted by U.S. military police to the Yugoslav border, where they had been turned over to Yugoslav authorities. (This story conflicts with Mersmann’s statement that she saw the shipments off from the Munich train station.) Mimara said that he had been in Belgrade in 1949, when he had seen all the objects on display at the Academy of Belgrade, and again in 1950. (This, too, conflicts with Mersmann’s statement.) Many of the carpets, he said, had been distributed among employees of the restitution center in Belgrade, who had trimmed them to fit their offices. He claimed to have no idea what had happened to the objects since 1949. The legation officer examined the objects Mimara had in Tangier but couldn’t match anything with the photos he had been given. However, he wasn’t convinced that he had seen the entire collection.

On April 3, 1956, Mimara left Tangier for Vienna.

Breitenbach didn’t broadcast the news that the Americans had erroneously restituted 25 tons of artworks to Yugoslavia, but in March 1954 the story surfaced in the Italian press. The anti-American Rodolfo Siviero, the Italian government’s restitution officer, had heard it from his German contacts. Publicity in Italy was the last thing the State Department wanted, because it might have serious political repercussions. In November, the Office of Assistant Secretary of State informed restitution specialist Ardelia Hall that "this is an important problem which could well develop into an Italian claim against us." Six paintings claimed by Italy—including canvases by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veneziano, valued in total at $231,000—had been turned over to Mimara.

After receiving the CIA’s detailed report of Mimara’s international activities, the State Department had asked the American embassy in Belgrade to try to verify Mimara’s statement that the property in question had been delivered to the Belgrade museum. The embassy was told not to approach the Yugoslav government. It was suggested that an embassy officer visit the museum "on an informal basis" and attempt to identify certain items. If the officer was successful, a claim could be made for the return of the items. If the Yugoslavs proved uncooperative, the Americans were considering notifying the governments of the countries from which the property had been looted, so that they could pursue claims. But the informal visits of American diplomats to the Belgrade museum didn’t yield the desired results, and no looted artworks were identified.

The State Department was worried that the United States government might be held liable because it hadn’t informed the claimant governments promptly of the erroneous restitution. Hall was also concerned that one of the claimant governments might sue the U.S. government or the officers involved. She was particularly apprehensive about Siviero, who might use the incident to embarrass the U.S. The French government, Hall wrote, had shown patience and confidence in the U.S. However, if the Rothschilds were to discover that two of their paintings had been lost by mistake, they might bring suit.

Despite Hall’s concerns, the State Department finally decided not to notify claimant governments, out of fear that they might hold the United States liable. The State Department legal adviser decided that the United States was "acting at the time in question as the occupying power in Germany, that we voluntarily undertook to return a great deal of property to various countries, that we did the best we could to carry out this program, that we acted in good faith and that we cannot go on indefinitely trying to remedy or assume responsibility for possible errors in carrying out occupation programs of this sort."

The matter was to be dropped, the legal adviser wrote to Hall. It was not to be "raised in any communications or discussions with representatives of those governments on this subject."

Protected by the U.S. government’s decision to cover up the incident, Mimara continued his career as a collector, art dealer, and art forger throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s, and even managed to sell some important works to major American museums. By 1957 he was dividing his time among Salzburg, Tangier, and Zurich.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Mimara met with curators of important American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to try to sell some of his art treasures. Theodore Rousseau, the Metropolitan’s curator of European paintings and a former officer of the OSS Art Investigation Unit, met Mimara at the end of the 1950s in Zurich. Mimara offered the Metropolitan paintings that he claimed were by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael. The paintings, he told Rousseau, were kept in Tangier. However, the canvases Mimara showed Rousseau in Zurich, which he attributed to Delacroix and Ingres, discouraged Rousseau from making the trip to Morocco.

Yet in 1963 Thomas Hoving, curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters (and later director of the Metropolitan), purchased the Bury St. Edmunds cross from Mimara for $600,000. Mimara refused to give Hoving or the museum any details about the provenance of the piece, saying only that it had been purchased from an Eastern European monastery. James Rorimer, director of the Metropolitan, called the cross one of the most important acquisitions the museum had ever made. Mimara used the proceeds to purchase Schloss Neuhaus, the castle near Salzburg where his widow now lives.

As he relates in his book King of the Confessors, Hoving convinced the Metropolitan to purchase the cross despite warnings from people who had worked in the Central Collecting Point that Mimara had a suspicious past. He also ignored the warnings of the Swiss police about Mimara’s "doubtful" personal history. Hoving said that Rorimer contacted the FBI about Mimara, but the agency replied that it had no information. The museum didn’t contact Ardelia Hall, who had been gathering information about the mysterious Yugoslav collector since 1949.

In 1948 Mimara donated 148 paintings and sculptures to the Strossmayer Gallery in Zagreb, and in 1973 he presented a substantial part of his collection to the Croatian Republic, on the condition that a building be constructed in Zagreb to house it. His life is summed up, without irony, in a quotation from Ovid appearing on the first page of the lavish catalogue of the Mimara Museum: "Exegi Monumentum"—"I erected a monument."

Konstantin Akinsha, an ARTnews contributing editor, was deputy research director of the Art and Cultural Property section of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. He is coauthor (with Nancy H. Yeide and Amy L. Walsh) of The AAM Guide to Provenance Research, published by the American Association of Museums. Additional reporting by Hugh Eakin.

© website copyright Central Registry 2024