Claremont Insider: A Trip in Time

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Trip in Time

Our examination of a certain stolen Impressionist painting moves from the present and recent focus on Claremont McKenna College history professor Jonathan Petropoulos back to the last time the painting in question was publicly exhibited.

The painting, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps, done in 1903 by Camille Pissarro, was stolen by Nazis in 1938 from the family of German publisher Samuel Fischer and had been secreted away in a Swiss bank vault belonging to a Liechtenstein trust controlled by Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer who had been a key figure in the systematic Nazi program to loot art from occupied Europe during World War II.

The painting, along with four other Impressionist works owned by Lohse's trust, were exhibited as part of an inaugural show for a small Swiss museum in 1984.

The Wayback Machine at the Insider Institute is warmed up and ready to draw the many terawatts of power needed to bend the fabric of space and time to transport us back to the year 1984 and to our destination: Lausanne, Switzerland.

Step into the Wayback and please keep your hands within the passenger compartment at all times. When we arrive in Lausanne, we'll proceed directly to 2, route du Signal, and the Fondation de l'Hermitage.

The Fondation sits on a wooded hill overlooking Lausanne and has a splendid view of Lake Geneva. In 1850, the Swiss banker Charles-Juste Bugnion completed the residence that now houses the Fondation. In the 1970's, Bugnion's family bequeathed the estate and part of the surrounding parkland to the City of Lausanne, and also created the private foundation that runs the museum.

That's the museum to our right, somewhat more foreboding in black-and-white than it actually appears now, but we thought the Gothic quality was a nice touch and seemed to suit the flavor of our trip.

Stay close to the candlelight - the stairs can be treacherous....

Before we enter the exhibit, you'll want to pick up one of the show's catalogues. The exhibit, which ran from June to October, 1984, was titled l'Impressionnisme dans les Collections Romandes and featured Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings and sculptures, as well as a few precursors to Impressionism, from French-speaking Switzerland.

Notice the Renoir on the cover, Jeune Fille au Chapeau garni de Fleurs des Champs (1880), a painting that was also featured on the tickets for the show. The catalogue lists all of the exhibition's paintings, including the five we've come to view:

  • Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (1903), Camille Pissarro
  • Vue de Vétheuil, l’hiver (1879), Claude Monet
  • La Baie du Moulin Huet à travers les arbres—Guernsey (1883), Auguste Renoir
  • Femme assise, tenant une Mandoline (1826-1828), Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
  • L’Abreuvoir à Marly (1875), Alfred Sisley

The first three paintings, the Pissarro, the Monet, and the Renoir, were all together in Bruno Lohse's secret vault in Zurich when he died last year, and it was there that Jonathan Petropoulos and his partner Peter Griebert visited before they met with the rightful owner of the Pissarro, Gisela Bermann-Fischer, in January, 2007. The other two were also apparently controlled by Lohse's trust, which Peter Griebert worked for.

The catalogue fails to list the provenance of the five Lohse-controlled paintings, other than to attribute them to "Swiss Private Collection." Interestingly, of the 111 paintings and 12 Degas sculptures in the show, only six have owners who are named. The rest are attributed to private collections in different Swiss cities: "Collection Particulière, Lausanne," "Collection Particulière, Genève," or "Collection Particulière, Montreux." Only the five Lohse paintings have the broader designation: "Collection Particulière, Suisse."

Did Lohse need an extra layer of protection to hide his ownership of the paintings? If Gisela Fischer or anyone else looking for the painting had known of the particular city, Zurich, where her painting was kept, would it had made it easier for them to find it?

As the Stephen Koldehoff article in the Summer 2007 issue of ArtNews noted, there were also some problems that surfaced later with the exhibition's curator and another Swiss bank vault:
The curator of that show was the French art historian and Renoir cataloguer François Daulte, whose death in 1998 led to a major scandal. His heirs found in his safe at the Credit Suisse Bank in Lausanne 24 paintings by Corot, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Morisot, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec that had belonged to Anne-Marie Rouart and should have been given to the Académie des Beaux- Arts and its Marmottan Museum in Paris by the executors of her will, one of whom was Daulte’s son Olivier.

Koldehoff also writes that the Fondation de l'Hermitage itself may now be the subject of an investigation:

Moreover, the provenance of the Fondation de l’Hermitage’s own art collection of about 800 works is unclear in some cases. German researcher Monika Tatzkow, who recently published (with Gunnar Schnabel) the comprehensive handbook Nazi Looted Art, has discovered that at least some of these works were acquired from the notorious Swiss art dealer Maria Schmidlin, a Nazi collaborator who bought and sold on their behalf artworks stolen, looted, or extorted from Jewish emigrants.

The Fondation de l’Hermitage did not reply to a request from ARTnews for more information.

As the Koldehoff article pointed out, there was some risk to publicly exposing the paintings, and it was the catalogue from the 1984 Fondation de l'Hermitage exhibit that Camille Pissarro's great-grandson, Joachim Pissarro, gave to Gisela Fischer in 2001 as evidence that her painting still existed. Why would Lohse take the risk of an exhibit for the Pissarro, which was known to be stolen?

Perhaps Lohse intended to create a veneer of propriety for his ownership. By having the painting shown at a relatively minor museum, he would start creating a public trail for the painting, something Loshe may also have tried to do with the Renoir, though the provenance for that painting is unclear. And, given the blurry ownership attribution in the Daulte catalogue for the show, one wonders if any other looted paintings might have been lurking in the exhibit - paintings that had never been exhibited abroad, for instance.

Equally murky for the uninitiated such as ourselves is the world of public and private art collectors and dealers. Paintings go missing, ethical lines seem to get blurred, millions of dollars change hands, and too many of those immersed in the trade accept this as the normal course of affairs. In the real world, things are much clearer. Stolen property is discovered, and it gets returned to the original owner. Sometimes the people who buy the items are charged with possession of stolen property. Having the millions to buy and sell stolen art, though, must also buy you a different sort of ethics, one much more malleable than the everyday variety you and I have to live with.

In any case, we've now arrived at the Fondation's entrance. Tomorrow, we'll take a careful look at the paintings, and maybe even take a sidetrip to the island of Guernsey, where Lohse's Renoir was painted. Make sure you have your tickets ready.

    Continued in Part II.