The Reich Stuff

Brent Benjamin and the St. Louis Art Museum are examining whether 102 paintings in the collection have any ties to Nazi looting. But they won't identify the paintings for fear of tainting the works as "suspect." Their caution only raises suspicion.

However, in examining the media attention focused on the recent revelations about art collections and the Nazi past, the cautionary approach taken by the majority of museums, as with Benjamin and SLAM, has only heightened suspicions.

Those museums that opted for full disclosure, the Art Institute and the Met, have received little press in the three months since their lists appeared on their Web sites. Moreover, the information they hoped to attract has not emerged. "The overall response has been very slim," the Art Institute's Eileen Harakal told the Boston Globe. Three months is not a very long time, but it seems that the museums' insistence that a "gap in provenance" does not imply "suspect work" has proved valid.

Yet the MFA, which listed only seven paintings among 200 of uncertain provenance, continues to come under scrutiny from both the media and groups such as the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston. Nancy Kaufman, of the Council, told the Boston Herald, "People think it would be important to highlight those works of questionable ownership. If (the MFA) is really trying to identify ownership, a little more should be done to highlight those works in question."

"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin
Jennifer Silverberg
"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin

Brent Benjamin sits in his sun-drenched corner office at the art museum in his pressed, long-sleeved white shirt. He is tall, solidly built, handsome, with a resemblance to the actor Ray Liotta, though Benjamin is significantly more urbane than the earthy types Liotta plays. Benjamin is an alum of Williams College, a school that has produced an extraordinary number of museum directors and curators. Benjamin is formal, guarded, even as he displays a friendly conversational style. He speaks passionately about the issues of World War II provenance and the questionable, and sordid, art dealings of that time.

"It's a very serious issue," he says with square-jawed conviction. "The media hype that you describe is accurate, but that should not cloud how serious this issue is. These are families that were destroyed, property that was taken. Collections that were built up over generations were robbed. People were killed, moved, displaced, torn apart. This is an awful chapter in human history, and the paintings are very important and very poignant but only a very small piece of the total horror of the whole."

With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the declassification of documents in recent years, more research into the Nazis' systematic approach to the seizure of works of art throughout Europe, for either their own collections or for elimination, is being conducted. Feliciano's book, Lynn H. Nicholas' The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War and Jonathan Petropoulos' The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany are three recent works that have illuminated this dark era.

Benjamin says that in reading the recent literature, he's found himself "amazed" by "the hugely organized nature" of the Nazis' pursuit of art treasures: "It's shocking and horrifying when you read about it.

"They went after them (the artworks) in a number of hateful ways. They tried to buy things. They tried to blackmail people. They killed them. They raided them. They confiscated them. They did all sorts of different kinds of things. And not only that, but the Nazi leadership was actually competing with each other for their own collections and to get things for the Führer, for his museum, as a favor to him."

Yet in reopening this chapter of history, Benjamin's concern is for the reputations of the museums. "When you put up (on the Web) every single painting in your collection that was acquired after 1937 and painted before 1945, you create a misimpression that you don't know very much about your collection. The fact of the matter is that museums know a lot about their collections. What's not known about a collection is frequently -- not always, but frequently -- very hard to know.

"You also create the impression, when you put up 700 works, for example, that you've got 700 problems. In fact, 37 of those works probably were owned in England and were in English collections in 1937 and were in English collections in 1942 and were still in English collections in 1952, and then they were sold at Sotheby's. Well, those don't present problems in terms of wartime provenance. There may be other kinds of issues, but they don't present problems.

"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem -- which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously."

SLAM's serious approach to examining the World War II/Holocaust provenance of 102 paintings has been to hire Stein, who's been working on the project for two years. Benjamin describes the combination of scholarship and detective skills it takes for such work. "One of the first things you do is, you turn it over," Benjamin begins. "You look on the back, and you see what's on the back. Are there stickers from galleries, from dealers, from exhibitions, from collectors? Are there addresses? Are there labels? Are there inscriptions? Are there seals? Are there stamps or marks? You start to put that together. You say, 'OK, I know that it was at this gallery in 1923 because there's a label from this gallery dated 1923.' Then you try to find if that gallery exists. Are there records, and will they give them to you? If it doesn't, was there a successor gallery? Or were the records sent to an archive -- the Archives of American Art -- or were they sent to some other kind of archive? You try to find that information out."

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