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If Brent Benjamin is to err, he will err on the side of caution. In April, for instance, the director of the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) announced that four paintings in the institution's permanent collection had passed through Nazi hands: "Circus Rider" and "View from the Window" by Ernst Kirchner; "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" by Max Beckmann; and "Bathers with a Turtle" by Henri Matisse, one of the museum's singular treasures.
It was a modest announcement in relation to the headline-making revelations that four major museums delivered on the same day. On April 10, hundreds of works of art with "incomplete provenance" -- gaps in the history of ownership -- in the years 1933-45 were posted on the Web sites of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. The Art Institute of Chicago and the Met chose to open their archives in the hope that such disclosure would attract information on 550 paintings and sculptures at the Art Institute and 393 paintings at the Met. The lists include works by Beckmann, Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Jan Brueghel the Younger, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet. In a variety of ways, these works came into the possession of the Nazis during the German conquest of Europe, then passed on to others and, inevitably, into museum collections.
SLAM and museums around the world have been actively engaged in researching their collections' World War II/Holocaust provenance over the last two years. These actions come in response to various pressures: the release of documents that have revealed the extent to which the Germans plundered private and public collections during their conquest of Europe, exposing how museums and collectors around the world have profited from the redistribution of property; the demands of Jewish organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress and its director, Elan Steinberg, for restitution of art stolen from Jews; and a presidential mandate, with an official Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets created after the disturbing revelations of Jewish assets' being held in Swiss banks decades after the war.
"Suspect work" and "Nazi loot" are some of the phrases with which the media responded to the Web postings. These actually pale beside headlines that have appeared in the European press over the last few years. "Provenance: Bloodstained" and "Nazi Shadow" are two of the more potent examples.
Even Benjamin, releasing information on a mere four paintings, found himself doing significant damage control after Diane Toroian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on April 12 that "Brent Benjamin says the Museum will return or pay for pieces that can be traced to Nazi Germany" and then went on to name the four paintings that "passed through Nazi hands." The implication of the article, intended or not, was that the quartet of works could potentially be returned to Germany.
The paintings "are properly here," Benjamin emphasizes (for a full discussion of the works' provenance, see the related article). "We don't plan to return them or pay for them. They were bought perfectly legally back when they were bought back in the '30s and '40s." Both Benjamin and Toroian confirm that the director never implied otherwise. "There's never been any kind of title concern about these works of art," Benjamin emphasizes. "It's been known forever where they came from. It's been published. It's been documented. There's never been a claim, and there's no basis to make a claim."
Because the Nazis confiscated these works from German museums -- their "degenerate" nature made them targets for seizure -- and then sold them, this was essentially a case of the German government, no matter how heinous that government was, selling off German property. "This particular episode was hateful but perfectly legitimate," says Benjamin.
The four paintings are not to be confused with works such as Matisse's "Odalisque," stolen from collector Paul Rosenberg by the Nazis and recently returned to his heirs by the Seattle Art Museum, or Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Madonna and Child in a Landscape," which the Nazis stole from Philipp Gomperz, a Viennese Jew. After the North Carolina Museum of Art returned the German master's work to Gomperz's heirs, they sold it back to the museum at a substantial discount because of the museum's perceived good faith.
If SLAM does have Nazi plunder in its collection, Benjamin insists, the museum would not hesitate to make reparations. But that isn't the case with these four paintings with links to a Nazi past. It's just Benjamin's luck that he would release what is essentially old news and still get burned. Put the words "Nazi" and "plunder" together, and the media temperature rises.
However, those aren't the only works with ties to the World War II/Holocaust years in SLAM's collection. "The collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum includes a number of paintings that were removed from German state collections by the National Socialist Party and sold in 1937," the SLAM press release reads.