Wednesday, June 07, 2006


As the Turner Turns

It was an unusual concurrence of stories, all hitting the newspapers at about the same time: The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, relinquished a major J.M.W. Turner painting, discovered to have been Nazi loot; another Turner broke the record for a British watercolor at Christie's, London; Sotheby's announced it will share the database of its Nazi-loot Restitution Department with the Swift-Find Looted Art Project, which will put the auction house's information online for the first time.

The Dallas Morning News described the Kimbell's Glaucus and Scylla, soon to be returned to the heirs of John and Anna Jaffé, as "priceless." But nothing, Janet Kutner, is priceless---just pricey: Turner's "The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise" fetched ₤5.8 million on June 5, having been estimated to fetch "in excess of ₤2 million." Everything's got a price, no matter how astronomical.

The Kimbell did not raise a paddle for that one, even though it knew about the Jaffé heirs' claim since September and it now owns no Turner. The museum's published provenance for the painting reveals that it was sold at the Hall du Savoy, Nice, France, on July 12 or 13, 1943, for 28,000 francs. That sale was a known auction of "Jewish property" that had been seized by the Vichy regime. The Turner went through five more hands before the Kimbell bought it in 1966. The Kimbell agreed that the heirs had strong documentation and did not put up a fight.

What this episode seems to indicate, though, is that museums should not merely compile and publicize lists of objects in their collections that had murky provenances during and after World War II, but should actively check such lists against inventories of known galleries and auctions that dispersed Nazi-appropriated art.

The newly announced Sotheby's collaboration with the Swift-Find database is one of several Nazi-loot registries under various auspices. One of the best known is the Art Loss Register. But the current online list of unresolved Holocaust claims that have been registered with ALR consists of only three cases.

On a lighter note, Mindy Riesenberg, the Kimbell's head of media relations, told me she has a personal connection to the restitution story:

It looks like I may be related to the family we're returning the painting to, but on the "wrong" side to be able to claim a piece of the pie! Oh well, no Turner for me!

Maybe, as often happens, the heirs will ultimately decide to sell the work, and the Kimbell will get another shot at it---but at a price greatly enhanced by the Kimbell's own imprimatur.

Museums' responsiveness to the Nazi-loot issue raises the question as to whether similar procedures should be followed regarding another category of possible loot in their collections---antiquities. This notion is going to get me into so much trouble that I think I'll hold onto it until I return next week from a journalistic journey.

But don't go away: A couple of parting posts tomorrow.

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