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Museums to remove paintings stolen by Nazis

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Helsingin Sanomat International 20 January 2004
Timo Siukonen

What is going on in the art gallery of Pyynikinlinna in Tampere?

Two women pull on white cotton gloves, and one of them lights a flashlight. The other grabs a magnifying glass off a table.

It is quiet in the room, which houses more than ten valuable paintings from the collections of Emil Aaltonen.
We have received the opportunity to watch researchers in Finland track down art stolen by the Nazis.

The museum janitor has the day off, so University of Jyväskylä researchers Maarit Hakkarainen and Tiina Koivulahti employ the help of museum head Marna Maula and Anitta Nurmi, in charge of administration and finances, to lift the paintings off the walls.

The operation requires eight hands, two sets of ladders, plenty of resourcefulness and raw power - then Suzanne surprise au bain par les deux vieillards , a painting by Louis Jean Francois Lagrénée from 1763, can be slowly lowered to the floor for further inspection.

Hakkarainen and Koivulahti scrutinise the painting front and back, poring over each centimetre of the canvas (over one and a half metres wide) as well as the frame. The flashlight and magnifying glass definitely come in handy. Together, the researchers ponder any problematic questions. All signatures, markings, letters, and numbers are recorded.

Anitta Nurmi makes sure the researchers have gone through the museum's files and reports.

"Yes, but we cannot rely on the findings of others. They could mean something else to us than to the people who made the original inventory of the collection. We have reason to be rigorous", Koivulahti explains.

For years now, the two researchers have acquainted themselves with the history of the international art trade and the routes paintings have taken around the world.

Hitler and his followers planned and committed the most extensive and organised art crime in cultural history between the years 1933 and 1945. The aim of the National Socialists was, by any means necessary, to return to Germany all works made by German artists or owned by Germans that had wound up abroad. This they accomplished by unscrupulously stealing collections from Jews, from others classified as enemies of the state, and from the countries they occupied. Germany's own public collections were cleansed of modern, "decadent" art.

As a result of this decision, Germans stole 150,000 paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from Western Europe, and 500,000 from Eastern Europe. Books and plenty of other cultural items come on top of that.

After the Second World War, the Allies established a network to return the art to its rightful owners, but large numbers of works had disappeared or been destroyed.

When Koivulahti and Hakkarainen were preparing their art history master's thesis at the University of Jyväskylä, they realised that the path of Nazi art crimes also led to Finland.

The Kuopio Museum received 29 works through a testament donation in 1990. The researchers probed the past of eleven of these works, and four years ago were able to prove that Edouard Manet's Portrait of a Young Girl and Mihaly Munkacsy's Moses and the Israelites had belonged to the Austrian-Czech family of Colloredo-Mannsfeld. The Germans had looted thousands of works of art from the family's castles during the war.

"We became interested in the subject and investigated whether any research on Nazi art theft had been conducted earlier in Finland. As there was none, we decided to mount a study", the researchers explain.

Hakkarainen and Koivulahti have joined the international network of researchers in stolen art. They correspond with auction houses, galleries, museums, archives, research institutes, and private individuals.

"It is like a puzzle. One right piece can lead to another, and they can help solve a very big picture." But disappointments are also inevitable - a false lead can result in months of wasted effort.

The researchers emphasise that they must be very precise in their scientific work. It is not sufficient to know that a work of art was owned by someone in Hitler's inner circle. They must be able to prove that a crime took place and that the artwork is in the wrong hands as a result.

The chain of evidence must be complete. The artist paints, and the works begin to move. One person sells, another buys. The paintings switch hands.

The researchers are after written proof: receipts, testaments, estate inventories, letters, auction lists, sales lists, exhibition brochures, photographs. They will systematically go through all Finnish art collections, focusing on works with unknown moves during the years 1933-1945.

So far, only the Gösta Serlachius Museum of Fine Arts in Mänttä has denied them access, as the museum is reorganising its exhibits and archives.

But what happens in museums is practical work. There is one interesting painting left on the walls of the museum.

There are plenty of markings behind the oil painting St. Cecilia, most likely by Italian Guercino da Cento.

The combination 589GO can be found on the back, which could mean that the painting has once passed through the British auction house of Christie's.

According to the researchers, the world's leading auctioneers feel it is a matter of honour for them to investigate the origins and true owners of the works they sell. As a result, the inquiries of Koivulahti and Hakkarainen have always been answered.

They are confident that with time, the significance of the mysterious 589GO and the painting's other markings will be revealed.

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