Claremont Insider: Six Degrees of Petropoulos

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Six Degrees of Petropoulos

Claremont McKenna College's Jonathan Petropoulos pops up in the oddest places....


The Independent - the British newspaper, not the Claremont McKenna College student paper - published an interesting obituary on February 22nd. The obit was for Alec Wildenstein, an heir to one of the largest private collections of art in the world.

The Wildenstein family has been involved in art appraisal, collecting and dealing since the late-1800's in Paris, where Alec's great-grandfather Nathan had fled to after leaving Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War. The family, which has galleries in Paris, New York, and Tokyo, has catered to any number of the rich and powerful in the U.S. and around the world. As their art empire grew, so did their reputation for secretiveness.

In 1997, Alec Wildenstein was thrust into the limelight when his then-wife Jocelyn (Jocelyne, to the British) came home early from a trip to their 60,000-acre ranch in Kenya to find Alec in bed with his Russian mistress. According to newspaper accounts, Alec grabbed a towel and a 9mm handgun and told his wife and her two bodyguards they were trespassing. Alec ended up being charged by police for threatening his wife with the gun.

Joceyln, incidentally, was the subject of a great deal of tabloid coverage for the inordinate amount of plastic surgery she had subjected herself. Some people claimed that she was trying to model herself after the kinds of wild cats found back on the Kenyan ranch.

Jocelyn's and Alec's subsequent divorce exposed the Wildensteins and their business to a kind of public scrutiny that they had never had to endure before. It turned out, for instance, that despite an estimated family net worth measured in the billions, as well as having residency in Manhattan and children born and educated in New York, Alec Wildenstein had never paid income tax in the U.S., the Independent reported in its obituary:

The couple had started relatively peaceful divorce proceedings even before the bedroom incident but this led to lengthy and naturally widely reported divorce proceedings where Alec Wildenstein made matters worse for himself by never appearing in court – not surprising in someone who, like the rest of his family, had lived totally out of the public gaze. Jocelyne demanded a monthly allowance of $200,000 and a deposit of $50m pending a settlement. Absurdly Alec Wildenstein pleaded poverty, claiming that he did not really live in the United States and that his earnings added up to a mere $175,000 a year, for the family had never paid any income tax in the United States.

The Independent also noted another problem the Wildensteins had to contend with. In 1995, a writer named Hector Feliciano published a book called "The Lost Museum" about Nazi looting of art in Europe during World War II and the restitution of that art after the war. In his book, Feliciano discussed claims that Alec's grandfather, Georges Wildenstein, after fleeing to New York in 1941 because of the family's Jewish ancestry, kept the family's gallery in Paris open and that the gallery's manager, Roger Dequoy, did business with the Nazis.


As a 5/10/99 New York Times article reported, the Wildenstein family filed suit against Hector Feliciano in France, claiming that the family's reputation had been damaged by the book.

The NYT article on the Wildenstein suit drew a letter containing a soft defense of the Wildensteins from an associate professor of history at Loyola College in Baltimore - one Jonathan Petropoulos. The letter, published by the Times on 5/16/99, said:

To the Editor:

Your May 10 Arts pages article on the lawsuit by the Wildenstein family, a powerful French-Jewish dynasty of international art dealers, against the writer Hector Feliciano for repeating allegations that the family had collaborated with the Nazis, reflects not only the strong emotions stirred by the subject of Holocaust victims' assets but also the virtually intractable problems that arise in researching this history. The secretive art world, where deals are sometimes concluded with only a handshake, compounds the difficulties.

There are instances when Jewish owners and their representatives interacted with German dealers in an attempt to save their collections (and their lives) and mitigate the harshness of Nazi policies. Most of the people involved, like Georges Wildenstein, are now deceased. What we have left are the artworks and an incomplete paper trail. Regardless of the lawsuits, we owe it to the victims to continue the investigations.

Baltimore, May 10, 1999

Petropoulos' argument that some of the people involved in the art trade during the war, like Georges Wildenstein, may have been trying to help Jewish families under the Nazis apparently had no traction in the French courts, if it were ever used at all. The courts eventually dismissed the Wildensteins' suit.

By March, 2003, Petropoulos was back in the pages of the Times. A 3/3/03 NYT article described the release of a report by Clinton-era Presidential Advisory Committee on Holocaust Assets in the United States. The committee's work was not without controversy, and the panel was split as to how well they really did their job, the article said:

A Clinton administration commission on Nazi plunder failed to examine critical records pertaining to traffic in looted art before, during and after World War II, some leading scholars who worked on the inquiry now say.

The article ended by mentioning a complaint from researcher, attorney, and art historian Lucille A. Roussin, who thought the committee did not dig deeply enough for government records documenting possible dealings in Nazi-looted art works - works that may have made their way into American public and private collections in the post-war years. More interestingly, the article notes that Roussin was dismissed from her position with the committee and filed an age discrimination suit that was later settled. The NYT article said that Roussin mentioned Jonathan Petropoulos in her court filing:

In her complaint Dr. Roussin contended that the director of the commission's art unit, Jonathan Petropoulos, had obstructed her inquiries into the Metropolitan Museum and others and had blocked her efforts to inquire into Nazi-era transactions by the Wildenstein family of art dealers.

Dr. Petropoulos, professor of history at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of two books on Nazi art thefts, praised the commission's work and denied any effort to inhibit Dr. Roussin's inquiries.

He said the commission had collected about 1,000 pages on the Wildensteins. ''There was nothing conclusive,'' he said.

The Wildensteins have consistently denied any art dealings with Nazi authorities in France.

Mr. Petropoulos said that since leaving the commission he had become a consultant to the Wildensteins in another lawsuit involving Nazi-era claims.

What?????? There wasn't some sort of revolving door policy to prevent committee members from working too soon for possible subjects of the committee's work? And could that other lawsuit have been the one against Hector Feliciano, which was not finally dismissed by the French Supreme Court until October, 2003, seven months after the Times reported Petropoulos' consultant work for the Wildensteins?

The article on the Presidential Advisory Committee prompted Petropoulos, by then working at CMC, to write the Times once more. Petropoulos' second letter appeared on 3/9/03 and rebutted the allegations made by Lucille Roussin:

To the Editor:

In ''Panel on Nazi Art Theft Fell Short, Experts Say'' (Arts pages, March 3), you report that a former employee of the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States claims that, as the commission's research director for art and cultural property, I ''obstructed her inquiries into the Metropolitan Museum and others and had blocked her efforts to inquire into Nazi-era transactions by the Wildenstein family.'' These allegations are untrue.

My work as a scholar has been devoted to exposing Nazi art plundering and to returning looted art to its owners. Although I currently consult for several clients who were victims of Nazi looting, including the Wildensteins, I did not consult for them or any other parties while working for the commission. I had no conflict of interest -- not then, not now.

Scholarly integrity requires that historical conclusions be supported by evidence. Had the commission found evidence of the importation of Nazi looted art, I would have insisted that it be pursued vigorously. Had anyone on the commission resisted this pursuit, I would have considered it my professional duty to resign.

Claremont, Calif., March 6, 2003

One thing we haven't yet figured out with the most recent Petropoulos news is why the professor hasn't spoken to anyone about the matter. He certainly was not shy about speaking up to the New York Times. Why not step forward now rather than letting CMC's administration do most of the talking for him?

Now that Petropoulos has stepped down from his position as director of CMC's Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights, CMC administrators and their crisis management consultants may be thinking that the issue will cool down. In the art restitution world, though, things may just be heating up, and the national media may pick up on the story at some point.