Filling in the Gaps

Historian Jonathan Petropoulos sheds light on art stolen by the Nazis -- and encourages American museums to do the same

Jonathan Petropoulos expects that, within the next month or so, the Web sites of American art museums will provide lists of those works in their collections that contain gaps in their World War II/Holocaust provenances. Among the institutions that should post the data is the St. Louis Art Museum, which owns 102 paintings whose whereabouts sometime during the years 1933-1945 in Europe are unknown, years in which the Third Reich made art plunder a part of government policy.

"That should be done immediately," Petropoulos says firmly. "There's no reason to delay that I can see."

Petropoulos' conviction comes from 20 years of prying into the dark corridors of the Nazi art world. A professor of history at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, he is the author of Art as Politics in the Third Reich and, most recently, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. Petropoulos also served as research director for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. That group, which was created in 1998, published guidelines in December calling for the full public disclosure -- by way of Web postings -- of works whose records of ownership (or "provenance") during the war years are incomplete. The American Association of Museums endorsed this directive.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a site specifically for its Provenance Research Project, where paintings such as Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Christ Blessing the Children" can be found, along with each work's history of ownership and question marks where there are gaps.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a site specifically for its Provenance Research Project, where paintings such as Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Christ Blessing the Children" can be found, along with each work's history of ownership and question marks where there are gaps.

"American museums now have learned it's better to be as open as they can be," Petropoulos observes. "If they have a painting that was never restituted to a victim or an heir, it's better to give that painting back than to incur the negative publicity. There's no one painting in a collection that is more valuable than an institution's reputation. All the curators I have met want to do the right thing."

Besides, Petropoulos concedes, it's assumed that very few works of art in American museum collections were stolen by the Nazis -- whether taken from public institutions in countries the Germans invaded or looted from the private collections of Jews throughout Europe. Such works that have yet to be found -- and there could be thousands -- are most likely in Europe.

But the Nazi art trail has led to America, and as museums have become more dedicated in their provenance research, stolen works are being discovered and restitution is being made. Last fall, the National Gallery of Art returned a 17th-century Flemish painting to the heirs of Marguerite Stern, the widow of a Jewish banker whose art was seized during the Nazi occupation of France.

Brent Benjamin, SLAM's director, has taken a cautious approach to reporting information about the paintings, whose provenance is currently being investigated by art historian Laurie Stein in Germany. Although museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City posted a complete list of works in their collections with gaps in provenance last April, Benjamin had misgivings about such an approach: "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," Benjamin told the RFT last summer.

Contacted this week, Benjamin notes that the guidelines articulated by the president's commission report go beyond the 102 paintings Stein is researching. The report "sets forth a different standard, which is to list not only those objects that have gaps in their provenances but to list paintings that were made before 1946 and that changed hands or mayhave changed hands in Europe after 1932 and before 1946." This increases the pool of works in the SLAM collection subject to Web posting to 400-500 objects, Benjamin estimates. He says the museum has a group planning the sequence of events for the future listings: what will be posted when and with what information.

Petropoulos isn't in town to harangue SLAM (that's the RFT's job), but his guest lecture at Washington University touches on the importance of examining World War II/Holocaust provenance. In The Faustian Bargain, Petropoulos explores the careers of art historians, dealers, critics, museum directors and artists under the Third Reich. They include Kajetan Mhlmann, an undistinguished art historian who became, in Petropoulos' estimation, the greatest art plunderer the world has ever known; Ernst Buchner, a museum director who took the initiative to locate Old Masters in conquered nations and gave them to the Fhrer; and Arno Breker, a talented sculptor with an appreciation for Rodin who turned his abilities to the furthering of the regime -- and thus to his own financial gain as well.

Petropoulos makes it a point to emphasize that the actions of these intellectuals, although they performed at the fringes of the centers of power, are directly related to the European genocide. "The expropriation of victims' properties was very important to dehumanization," explains Petropoulos. "When they lose the trappings of culture, they appear less cultivated, less human. It was important toward victimization, in deciding who is the other and who is the enemy. It's a very important point in the radicalization process. Also, the perpetrators, the people carrying out the process, start to benefit materially. It shows these perpetrators that persecution is profitable." Along the ideological path that led to Auschwitz, says Petropoulos, "there was material enrichment all the way along.

"Because the art theft precedes the deportations and the murders, it is part of the process. So when you see what people in the art world ultimately do, it's really horrifying. It's not just 'I made a mistake.' It's being part of the worst crime in human history."

The figures Petropoulos describes in The Faustian Bargainhad several characteristics in common. For the most part, they were of modest abilities (the intellectual stars escaped, resisted or were killed). None of them was a true believer when the Nazis came to power, but as these people began to serve the Third Reich -- and began to profit enormously from that service -- their personal ideologies came into strict conformance with the regime.

"Corruption is one of the most fascinating subjects," says Petropoulos. "It's so complex, and we'll never understand it completely. Why are people corrupted? They're corrupted because of misplaced ideals. They're corrupted by proximity to power.

"My figures in The Faustian Bargain, I identified with them very, very much. They were people, much like myself, who were educated, who had careers that were going quite well, who basically seemed like myself. And to see the decisions they made -- it's a very disturbing realization. When you write about Hitler or Goebbels or Himmler and try to understand their understanding of culture, you have to identify with them and try to understand their thinking and their worldview. But they're so different than I am or than we are. You don't identify with them very much.

"But when you have an [art dealer such as] Karl Haberstock or Ernst Buchner or Kajetan Mhlmann and you look at their career paths, and, until the age of 25 or 30, it looks so much like me or people I know, and then you see what they end up doing."

When culture is so lauded as an ameliorative to society, Petropoulos notes the paradox the Nazis leave behind: "They cared about culture and they devoted so much time to it, were great patrons and spent more on culture than most other regimes. It's something we have to reconcile."

In many ways, we've yet to reconcile the relationship between the art museum and the death camp.

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