Hunt Museum's links to Nazi art 'were covered up'

The Times 25 June 2006
John Burns

A SENIOR museum official has accused the government of a cover-up in its inquiry into links between the founders of the Hunt Museum and Nazi art dealers.

Eamonn Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, has also accused the Hunt Museum of targeting his wife Erin Gibbons after she first suggested in 2003 that part of its collection might be Nazi loot.

The inquiry into the Hunt Museum concluded that its artefacts were unlikely to have a “problematic past”. But Kelly’s disquiet has been echoed by the Simon Wiesenthal centre in Paris. It says the evaluation group appointed by the government “seems to have acted neither independently nor transparently and the outcome of its labours has raised more questions than answers”.

However, it has finally unmasked the source of the allegations against John Hunt and his German-born wife Gertrude, whose art collection was donated to the state by their children. Kelly and the Wiesenthal centre have highlighted a file in Irish military archives that they say shows Hunt’s links to notorious Nazi art dealers.

According to the Wiesenthal centre, which ignored a request for help from the evaluation team, the military intelligence files reveal a close friendship and business relationship between Hunt and Count Alexander von Frey, a Lucerne-based dealer who once traded paintings with Hermann Göring in exchange for works stolen from Holocaust victims.

Von Frey wrote to Hunt between 1944 and 1946 asking how he might obtain an Irish visa and passport.

The Wiesenthal centre says the file also shows that Hunt was trading with Arthur Goldsmith and Emil Buhrle, prominent traffickers in looted art. “Goldsmith was involved in deals with senior Nazi suppliers such as Haberstock, who bought art for Hitler,” says a statement from the centre.

Supporters of the Hunts say the contents of the file have been misrepresented and over-stated, and point to a letter from gardai in 1943 to military intelligence that says Hunt “does not appear to be interested in any political organisation”.

Yesterday the Hunt Museum said that transcripts of letters in the file had been given to independent scholars.

Kelly revealed the existence of the file at a symposium on looted art organised by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin last Monday, attended by Irish and American experts. He admits that he did not tell the evaluation team about the file during its investigations.

“I did tell them that I had credible evidence linking the Hunts to Nazi-linked dealers,” he said. “I didn’t reveal my sources, but told them they should do proper research.”

He also defended his wife’s failure to co-operate with the inquiry. “She is not the issue,” he said. Kelly accused the Hunt Museum of refusing Gibbons access to its archives. He now wants a wider investigation into the Hunts.

“Otherwise the Irish people who acquired this collection of work from the family is going to continue to be lambasted on an international stage,” Kelly said.

“The Wiesenthal centre is not going to let this drop. It is looking to safeguard the property of people who were sent to the gas chambers.”

Yesterday the Hunt Museum evaluation group said its terms of reference had been to look at the provenance of objects in the Limerick museum rather than to pursue allegations that the Hunts had had links to Nazis.
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