Looking for owners: looted masterpieces go on show

The Guardian 22 March 2008
Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem

Exhibition brings together paintings stolen by the Nazis, and still unclaimed

Hanging on the wall of an upper floor in Jerusalem's Israel Museum is a fine early 20th century painting of a wintry church scene by the French artist Maurice Utrillo. On its own it is an artwork more than worthy of a new exhibition, but what makes this piece and the many others on display so compelling are the dark stories of their provenance and the long and often fruitless search for the original Jewish owners of thousands of works of art confiscated at the height of the second world war.

Stamped on the Utrillo's stretcher is a seal marked Feldpolizei Gruppe 540. The canvas was seized by the Nazi secret police in occupied France. After the war it was retraced in part thanks to the work of an unassuming but diligent member of the French resistance, Rose Valland, who worked at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, where the Germans stored the looted art before shipping it home

Valland, whom photographs show as a modest, bespectacled woman, secretly recorded what was coming in and going out. In early 1951 the Utrillo was unearthed in an attic in Tentschach castle, near Klagenfurt, in Austria. Its original owners were never traced.

Around 100,000 artworks were transferred from France to Germany during the second world war, of which around 60,000 have been recovered. Eventually some 45,000 were returned to their owners or their relatives, but the provenance of the rest has been untraceable and they are held in galleries across France.

The Utrillo is one of 53 such paintings in the Israel Museum's latest exhibition, Looking for Owners. Alongside it is a parallel exhibition, Orphaned Art, of looted works and Judaica which all lack clear ownership history and are now held at the museum.

"It is a collision of art, art history and political history," said James Snyder, the museum's director. "It is the idea that Israel, the country that emerged from the ashes of the tragedy of war, should be the place where 65 years later a significant effort to bring to a close this chapter of war is taking place."

Snyder said the paintings represented art collected by a secular middle class in Europe. "It makes you think of a certain kind of life that was taken apart by the war," he said.

Attendance since the exhibition opened last month has been much higher than expected.

In some cases curators have traced which of Hitler's men held which paintings. There is the Matisse landscape, The Pink Wall, that was somehow obtained by Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer with specific responsibility for delivering Zyklon B to the camps who eventually, guilt-ridden, apparently took his own life in July 1945. The painting was discovered three years later and its original ownership is still being traced.

On another wall is a Gustave Courbet painting, Bathers, which was bought by a prominent Parisian art dealer in October 1940 on behalf of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich's foreign minister. The catalogue admits the painting's provenance is untraced. "We therefore have no way of establishing its prewar history," it says. Many more paintings in the catalogue have equally bleak accounts of missing history.

However, in other cases the art has been returned to its rightful owners. On show is a painting called Woman Drinker, by the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch, an indoor scene bathed in light of a woman drinking with a pair of men. It was confiscated from Edouard de Rothschild - whose family's collections were systematically looted - and ended up in the hands of Hermann Göring. After the war it was recovered and returned to De Rothschild's daughter, Jacqueline, who donated it to the Louvre.

The museum has a bank of computers where visitors can search through the archives to trace missing family heirlooms.

Shlomit Steinberg, curator of European art, said that since the collapse of the Soviet Union there had been a revival in efforts to trace art. Restitution was still vital even so many years after the war, he added.

"When you think about the Holocaust and world war two, it is very hard to put an ending to it or a definite drawing of a line," she said. "Now the grandchildren have time to re-evaluate what happened to the family."

Last year the museum helped a British woman, Hazel Stein, trace two artworks, a Dutch 17th century painting and a drawing, which had gone unclaimed and arrived in Jerusalem when the Israel Museum was founded in 1965. They are now on loan back to the museum and are being restored for exhibition.,,2267379,00.html
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