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.

Jul 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

The Art Institute and the Met have posted complete lists of works with gaps in their World War II/Holocaust provenances, no matter how benign those missing links might be, in order to gain more information. The Matisse "Odalisque" for example, was not recognized as Nazi plunder until it was spotted, with the caption "whereabouts unknown," in Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art. The media controversy, at least to the Art Institute and the Met, is worth the knowledge that might be gathered.

SLAM has hired a former curator living in Germany, Laurie Stein, to investigate the works in its collection with gaps in provenance from the years 1933-45. No listing is planned for the SLAM's Web site, however, even though Stein is looking into the World War II/Holocaust histories of 102 paintings.

Benjamin is not alone in his cautious approach. To date, only four museums have listed artwork of uncertain provenance on their Web sites, and only the Art Institute and the Met have made full disclosure. Museums in California -- including the Getty Museum, which cannot complain about lack of resources -- have yet to provide lists from their substantial holdings.

Boston's MFA chose to list only seven paintings on its Web site that raised "concern" with curators, although more than 200 paintings in the collection are of uncertain provenance. A spokesperson for the MFA, Dawn Griffin, told the Boston Herald, "We are not giving out a list of 200 works. We do not want them sensationalized in the press. We don't want to blacklist a list of 200 works we don't have active concerns about."

Benjamin, who was a curator at MFA before becoming SLAM's director, accepts the view of his former employer. "It would be misleading to post every painting in the collection with a gap in its history," writes Benjamin by e-mail in response to inquiries from the RFT, "when in fact most have and will likely continue to have gaps without being in any way suspicious."

Stein agrees with Benjamin that listing the works on the Web would be of little value. "I think it is important for museums to undertake this work responsibly and with appropriate caution, as they are now doing," Stein writes by e-mail from Berlin. "We should always remember that much of the information available now was not available even 10 years ago, and that many situations are more complicated than one can ever imagine, with twists, turns and inconsistencies of history. It takes a trained scholar to make sense of all this, and therefore posting incomplete research in progress is of limited value."

The RFT correspondence with Stein, however, raises questions as to what is "appropriate caution." The RFT was not allowed to communicate with Stein directly -- only through SLAM's offices. Stein explains the purpose for this indirect communication by e-mail: "I have been engaged by the St. Louis Art Museum and by three other museums to conduct provenance research. That work is, by nature, interrelated and ongoing. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss research in progress. However, I can say that my research for the St. Louis Art Museum has only substantiated the accuracy of existing, well-published and documented provenance information for all works examined to date."

At least, that approximates what she wrote. Not only did questions and answers between the RFT and Stein pass through the art museum, but, says SLAM public-relations coordinator Kay Porter, she and Benjamin would look over Stein's responses and perhaps "enhance" them before sending them along.

Any mention of "Nazi plunder" generates alarm. When the MFA posted its select list, there was this clarification: "It must be noted that the inclusion of a work on this list does not in any way demonstrate that it was looted during the Holocaust/World War II era." Yet the next day, the Boston Globe reported that being on the list "may implicate them in the widespread looting of art during the Nazi era." When Met director Philippe de Montebello reported to the presidential commission on Holocaust assets on April 12, he stated, "I would like to emphasize here, and do so emphatically, that this list is not a list of 'suspect' pictures. To so portray them would do a serious injustice to their donors, to the museum-going public, and to truth itself." De Montebello's emphasis was lost on the Boston Herald. The very next day its headline read, "Two Museums Unveil Long List of Suspect Works."

There is also the outrage of the World Jewish Congress' Steinberg with which to contend. He criticizes the museums for foot-dragging and proposes: "If no individual claimant comes forward, then the work should go to Jewish successor bodies or for the benefit of Holocaust survivors." Steinberg charged that a Rubens in the Met's collection was one such work, a claim that drew intense media attention but later proved groundless. Steinberg has shown no hint of contrition, recommending that a museum be created for unclaimed art stolen from Jews, to be named the Museum of Rescued Art and Literature, or MORAL.

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."

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."

A curator tries to find a gallery dealer's children or grandchildren and might look into their basements or garages for records. If a complete catalog of an artist's work is available, a catalogue raisonné, it is studied for provenance information. And that information must be confirmed. Other art historians who may have private records on an individual artist are contacted .

"If there are exhibition labels, for example, from a museum, is there a record of that exhibition?" Benjamin continues. "If their exhibition was held in 1932, can you go to that museum and say, 'Do you have records of what was included in this exhibition? Is this painting in those records? Is it the same one? Do you know who you borrowed it from?'

"Those are some of the things you would do to follow up the physical evidence. Then there are further things. If you have some pieces of information -- and typically you do have some pieces -- then you start digging further. If it was owned by an individual that you know, are there heirs? Do the heirs know anything about the collection; do they know when it was dispersed? Do you have a photograph of your grandmother's house? Is there a family portrait in which the painting is in the background? Do these kinds of things exist?

"It's real detective work, and there are a number of twists and turns."

A glimpse into the history of artwork in relation to the Nazi era leads to another path of inquiry, to the history of museums and collecting, and the meaning and purpose of museums and the treasures they hold. For example, in light of the controversy surrounding World War II/Holocaust provenance, the Greek government has once again called for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles, a longtime symbol of contention between Greece and Britain, from the British Museum.

If museums are treated with skepticism surrounding "incomplete provenance," part of that skepticism comes from the legacy of museums themselves. From Napoleon in Egypt to King Leopold in the Congo, plunder is part of the legacy of the modern museum. Does the Holocaust deserve a special examination unlike that granted any other period in history?

"It's a very big issue," says Benjamin in considering whether modern ethics dictate the return of or restitution for plunder gathered 200 years ago. "That's a whole separate discussion. It's a fascinating one, but I'm not really prepared to have it with you today." He laughs, smiles broadly. "It's a huge issue."

But what of works "collected" in this century -- Native American art, art of Oceania and Africa, Central and South America? And what of the exhibition of art from Central Africa that came to SLAM just two years ago from a Belgian museum, with only a lecture given on the cruel provenance of that work, most notoriously depicted in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and recently detailed in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa?

"One thing that's very important to remember, I think, about museums -- and this is not to excuse what may or may not have happened -- is the vital role they play in preservation of these objects for posterity," says Benjamin. "The things that are in the St. Louis Art Museum's collections are things that are -- not only are they here for the understanding and enjoyment and fostering education of people about great visual expressions, of cultural ideas and artistic ideas throughout the ages and across cultures and time periods, which they certainly are. But the museum exists in part simply to preserve these things for future generations. So there are examples of Chinese ceramics and African sculpture and European paintings and American Indian headdresses that exist for future, for study and for understanding and for marvel. This is a very vital role that museums play. It's important, when you're thinking about this issue, to always remember that role."

But aren't museums more than that? Don't they also provide the opportunity to tell a complex story of clashing cultures, to examine questions of values, of class and status and power? And as part of that, isn't acquisition -- both legitimate and disreputable -- part of the story of art, and of human history?

"It's important to understand that these things were often sold, traded for, commissioned, bartered," Benjamin responds. "There are all sorts of completely legitimate ways in which the transaction happened. Many of these things were sold or traded for money, for food, for raw materials, for favored relationships -- whether they be from nation to nation or individual to individual -- and some of them probably were stolen, and some of them probably were found. But the reality is that these things move in a variety of ways, and the museum tries very hard to make sure that the things that it acquires for its collection are legitimately acquirable, that the museum can have good title.

"The history of collecting is what we're talking about, and it's a fascinating topic. People collect in all countries, at all time periods, for all sorts of reasons, which are actually similar and shared. We care for and preserve and display and educate about objects that have been cared for enough to be passed down from generation to generation to generation. There's a 1,000-year-old Chinese hand scroll in the collection. It's one of the greatest Chinese paintings in America. It's remarkable that this exists at all -- anywhere. But the power of the object to cause itself to be desired, to be made in the first place, to be commissioned, to be made, to be made beautifully, to be used, to be cared about, and then to be preserved and handed down and passed down and traded and sold and sought, is a very powerful and magical thing. It's one of the great things we have here -- this passion for these ultimate achievements of visual expression across time and culture."

For now, Benjamin's vision is directed ahead rather than behind. SLAM is involved in the byzantine planning stages for a new facility in Forest Park. The future of museums as a whole, with the stunning new structures in Bilbao, Spain (Frank Gehry's Guggenheim), and Los Angeles (Richard Meier's Getty), has generated fresh discussion about what museums can be and what they might be for.

The questions Benjamin felt unprepared to discuss are some of the most important issues museums are grappling with as they move beyond their colonial legacies. Yet when Benjamin was provided with an opportunity to return to these ideas, by way of e-mail, he was far from forthcoming. For example, Benjamin was again asked, "Don't art museums have the unique opportunity to tell a complex story of clashing cultures, to examine questions of value, of class and status and power? And isn't acquisition -- both legitimate and illegitimate -- part of the story of art, and of human history? How important are these issues to you in the evolution of SLAM as an institution? Is the museum involved in examining these topics, and what are your thoughts regarding how these can be part of the museum experience?"

His response was no more illuminating than before: "These are all significant, and number among the range of topics that can be and are included in the Museum's interpretation of the works of art in its collection. They are fascinating issues in and of themselves, and make up an important component of the broader context in which the meaning and magic of the works of art in the Museums' collection can be understood."

He concluded: "Hope this is helpful."

Benjamin is as cautious about communicating the art museum's future as he is in revealing its past.

For more information, see "Turtle" Diary.

Related Links:

Art Institute of Chicago:

Metropolitan Museum:

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

A good art-news resource:

International directory for Nazi plunder: