Claremont Insider: The Mysterious Case of the CMC Professor and Nazi-Looted Art

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Mysterious Case of the CMC Professor and Nazi-Looted Art

A reader alerted us to a story that appeared in the CMC student paper The Claremont Independent about CMC history professor Jonathan Petropoulos and a painting by the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro.

Here's our reader's email:

Subject: The Petropoulos Case

I think it's one of the best and most resourceful pieces of college journalism I've ever read:

Quite apart from what this does to CMC, which tried and failed to cover up this scandal, this article will have big repercussions in the art restitution community. This is the first time that Petropoulos' smoking gun extortion e-mail is published. Even better, details are given on what Art Loss Register actually did in the attempt to 'restitute' the Pissarro to Gisela Fischer...and they come off as scumbags! This is big news in the art world, with ALR truly disgraced.

To think that a college sophomore could unearth all this, what O'Melveny and Myers, on a four month round-the-world expedition, couldn't find anything of the sort... That's just amazing! Were they just not asking the right questions?

Too bad they tried to strong-arm the student, a sophomore, into not publishing. It didn't work.

It's rumored that CMC has now hired an outside PR firm, for damage control.

Sure looks like a Trustee or two had a hand in trying to clear Petropoulos, and even to squelch the faculty who were alarmed by all this. Petropoulos still directs the Holocaust center...

The college begins a $600 million campaign with a kick-off event in LA on Sunday night, with visits to 10 cities in 10 days... Wonder how that will work out?

[CMC President] Pam Gann and [CMC Director of Public Affairs and Communications] Evie Lazzarino both knew about this in early June when it broke in the European press and on English wires through Bloomberg (June 6, 2007). The student reporter knows that, too.

As the reader notes, this all sounds like bad timing for CMC, which is kicking off a major fundraising endeavor.

Charles Johnson at The Claremont Conservative blog also picked up on this story, which is making its way around the blogosphere.

The Claremont Independent's editor-in-chief, CMC sophomore Elise Viebeck, pieced together a remarkable story that paints of rather unflattering picture of Professor Petropoulos, his sometime employer the Art Loss Register, the CMC administration, and certain ethically-challenged corners of the stolen art restitution world.

CMC administrators were concerned enough about the matter to retain the Los Angeles mega-firm O'Melveny & Myers to conduct a four-month long investigation. The investigation found no legal wrongdoing on Professor Petropoulos' part, but a number of CMC faculty members question whether Petropoulos may have crossed an ethical line in his dealings with a Swiss woman who was seeking the artwork in question.

The Pissarro painting, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps, had belonged to the family of 78-year-old Gisela Fischer, who is Jewish. Fischer's family had to leave the painting behind when they fled Austria in 1938.

The painting was looted by the Nazis and disappeared after the war. It turned up in May, 2007, in a Swiss bank vault controlled by Bruno Lohse, a former Nazi art dealer who had been Hermann Göring's pointman for plundering during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Fischer contacted the London-based ALR, which locates stolen art for a fee. In 2001, when Fischer first registered the painting with ALR, the service was pro bono for Holocaust claims. By 2007, when the company, which had Professor Petropoulos working on the case, located the painting, their policy had changed, and they now wanted Fischer to pay a percentage of the value of the art work in order for her to be reunited with the stolen painting. The Claremont Independent article explains:

Two days after the [January, 2007] meeting in Munich, [ALR chairman Julian] Radcliffe also sent Fischer a letter, this time to request a finder's fee for the organization's success in finding the Pissarro in Switzerland. Despite its earlier commitment not to charge Holocaust claimants, the company had changed its charging policy for Holocaust art claims, telling claimants that the company could complete restitution "at far less cost and often more efficiently" than the expensive lawyers who took some cases. The meeting with the ALR in January 2007 was the first Fischer knew of the ALR's changed policy.

For the Pissarro case, Radcliffe proposed an elaborate compensation scheme, including 20 percent of the first $1 million, 15 percent of the second million and 10 percent of any additional value of the painting. Included in his price was a stipend for Professor Petropoulos, who had requested $100,000 from the ALR for his services.

In a letter dated January 23, Fischer's lawyer, Dr. Norbert Kückelmann, rejected the ALR's proposal. Three days later Petropoulos met with Fischer at the Hotel St. Gotthard in Zurich to try a new arrangement.

Radcliffe and Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register also went to Zurich, only to find themselves excluded from the dealings. "We went expecting to be included in the meetings with Ms. Fischer only to discover that they had already had meetings without us. We realized we had been cut out," Radcliffe told the CI.

At the hotel, Petropoulos and Peter Griebert, a Munich art dealer, showed her digital photos of the Pissarro, claiming to have taken them that morning. According to an account published in ARTNews magazine, they did not give further details about its location or the identity of its owners at that time.

Professor Petropoulos and Griebert then asked her for 18 percent of the painting's market value as a finder's fee. The percentage was to be divided between the two. Experts estimate the worth of the painting to be $2 to 3 million at minimum, meaning that based on the split, it is likely that each man would earn at least $200,000.

In a letter on January 29, Griebert asked Fischer for an affirmation of this agreement in writing.

Fischer rejected his request in a letter on February 1. "I decline the terms you have repeated: that a separate contract for a 'finder's fee' of 18 percent is warranted by you and Jonathan Petropoulos before you actively establish contact between me and the current holders or their lawyers," she wrote. "To me this constitutes a threat: if I don't obey your demands, the Pissarro will disappear again as it did in 1938."

Claremont Independent editor Viebeck contacted Petropoulos for the story, and the professor defended his actions by email, though Viebeck also unearthed some other Petropoulos emails that seem to contradict the professor's defense of his ethics:
In a March 11, 2008, email to the CI Professor Petropoulos defended his actions. "I always endeavored to return the painting in question by Camille Pissarro to the person whom I believed was the rightful heir," he said.

Emails from Petropoulos to Griebert following the Zurich meeting, obtained through a source close to the investigation, paint a different picture.

"If Frau Fischer and Dr. Kueckelmann choose not to engage us, then we cannot say what will happen to the painting," Petropoulos wrote on February 6, 2007. "It would be difficult to give her the names and locations without any compensation. That just won't happen."

"[H]er response is so irrational, it is hard to make sense of it all," he added in an email the next day. "She simply cannot recover the painting without us. At least, I don't know if she would discover on her own the identity of the holders and their current location. We need to keep that in mind. She needs us."

Petropoulos insisted, further, on their original demand for 18 percent. "As we have stressed, we had a deal with Frau Fischer for this amount (and we also hold all the cards right now)," he wrote on February 15.

Viebeck's article also cited concerns in art restitution circles that Petropoulos' relationship to Bruno Lohse, the Nazi art looter, was too close and that it may have compromised the credibility of Petropoulos' academic work:

Petropoulos' next book, rumored to be titled Bruno and Me, will focus on Lohse. Lohse was "a very problematic figure who trafficked in looted artworks and stashed some of them in Switzerland," Petropoulos said in an October 18 press release on the CMC website.

The book-"part memoir, part archival-based monograph, part philosophical reflection"-will recount Petropoulos' attempts to understand Lohse and "untangle his web of lies." It will build on 25 years of research in "Bavaria and Austria most every summer [to] track down the hands-on plunderers," said Petropoulos.

According to sources in the art restitution world, there is a widespread feeling of dismay at the closeness of the relationship between Petropoulos and Lohse and its impact on the credibility of his academic work, especially in light of Petropoulos' role in the Pissarro affair. A historian of the Holocaust, many believe, has a special duty to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest - real or perceived - between his responsibilities as a scholar and his commercial interests.

The statement of "Standards of Professional Conduct" for the American Historical Association directs members to avoid situations in which personal interest "could compromise (or appear to compromise)" their professionalism. Financial arrangements that "benefit or appear to benefit" historians at the cost of their professional charge are also to be avoided.

To Marc Masurovsky of HARP [the Holocaust Art Restitution Project], the Pissarro situation is emblematic of the "dark side" of the art restitution world. "[Petropoulos'] behavior is not becoming of a scholar. I've known Holocaust experts to interview ex-Nazis, but never to engage in long-standing relationships with them," he said in a recent phone conversation.

In his March 11 email, Petropoulos responded to questions of ethics. "I have thought a great deal about ethics," he wrote. "In this particular instance, [I] discussed the matter at length with long-time CMC Professor John Roth, a world-renown expert on the ethical implications of the Holocaust."

We'd like to hear more about the reader's claim that CMC tried to strong arm Viebeck into not running the story. And, what view does CMC's Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights, where Petropoulos is director, take on all this?

Whatever else happens, the reader is correct in thinking CMC has a major PR cloud looming on the horizon.