Claremont Insider: Dept. of Found Art

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dept. of Found Art


Le Quai Malaquais et l'Institut, 1903,
Camille Pissarro
Photo Credit: ARTnews, Summer 2007

That Camille Pissarro painting that caused so much controversy last year for Claremont McKenna College history professor Jonathan Petropoulos was back in the news last week.

Some time last year, the painting, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps, found its way back into the hands of its rightful owner, Gisela Bermann-Fischer. You'll recall that the painting had been looted by Nazis in Vienna in 1938 and didn't resurface until 2007, when it was discovered inside a Swiss bank safe controlled by Nazi art looter Bruno Lohse.


Bloomberg's Catherine Hickley reports that having at last been reunited with the Pissarro, Bermann-Fischer now plans to sell the painting at auction through Christie's International in London. Christie's estimates the painting's worth to be between £900,000 - £1,500,000 (around $1.48 million to $2.46 million).

The Pissarro will be sold next Tuesday, June 23, 2009, in the Impressionist/Modern Evening Sale, which marks the start of the summer art season.

Interestingly, we learn from the Hickley article that the painting has been renamed Le Quai Malaquais et l'Institut. We're not sure of the reasons for the new title, but it seems to be justified by a letter Pissarro wrote to his son on March 30, 1903, announcing a new “series” of paintings from an Eastward-looking window of the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire which include both the Seine and the dome of the Institut de France. Although he doesn’t say so in his letter, Pissarro’s decision to paint the Institut de France—from which the academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme, launched his vitriolic criticisms of the Impressionists decades before—was probably not taken lightly by the painter, who used a particularly radical composition in this, his last Paris series.

The importance of Pissarro’s letter was not lost on Bruno Lohse and François Daulte, who quoted it in the 1984 Lausanne description of the painting. It’s also quoted in the auction catalogue on Christie's website. Although we are aware of only three surviving paintings in this series — one of them painted in morning sun and currently in a private collection, another in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg — the Fischer Pissarro has the youngest spring growth on the trees and turns out to have been painted first. Pissarro died later in 1903, making these the only Pissarro paintings which show significant portions of Paris’s Left Bank and academic quarter.

You may want to go ahead and spend the $40, plus $7 shipping and tax, for the catalogue. It may be a collectible someday and it holds a good deal of local interest. You can order an auction catalogue from Christie's in New York at 1-800-395-6300, Monday - Friday, 9:00am - 5:00pm local time.

Christie's apparently no longer automatically sends a follow-up letter containing a list of prices realized at the actual auction, but you can request one be sent (free of charge) when ordering a catalog. Auction catalogs are often more collectible if this information is kept with them.

The auction description describes the painting as "property restituted to Gisela Bermann Fisher" and tells us some remarkable details about the painting’s history. In the provenance section, we learn that the painting went to Pissarro's son, Georges Manzana-Pissarro, following the painter’s death in 1903. Within just a few years, Manzana-Pissarro had sold the painting to the Bernheim-Jeune gallery (pointedly not to Durand-Ruel, his father's longtime dealer, with whom Pissarro had broken just before 1903). Bermann-Fischer's grandfather, Samuel Fischer, acquired the painting in 1907 on the advice of the legendary art dealer Paul Cassirer, and it remained in the family until the Nazis confiscated the painting.

After that, the trail gets a little murky. According to the catalogue materials, the work was sold in 1940 by the Dorotheum, the collaborationist Vienna auction house, as a painting by "Paul Emile [sic] Pissarro." Two other notorious Nazi art dealers, Eugen Primavesi of Vienna and Hans W. Lange of Berlin, handled the painting before it was passed on to Bruno Lohse, though no date of sale (or exchange) is listed. The catalogue says that the painting went to storage in Zurich (no date is given) and was then restituted to Bermann-Fischer as part of a settlement agreement with Schönart Anstalt, the trust in Liechtenstein that had been controlled by Lohse.

The literature section lists several references to the painting not typically seen in auction listings:
Elise Viebeck's March 13, 2008, piece in Claremont McKenna College's Claremont Independent didn't make the Christie's catalogue, but perhaps should have. Her article led to Petropoulos' resignation as director of the CMC Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights, one of CMC's ten endowed research institutes. Last month, CMC Trustees voted to change the name of the institute to The Center for Human Rights Leadership, though according to a press release on the CMC website "its focus on human rights and the Holocaust won't change."

Viebeck won the Eric Breindel Prize, arguably the most prestigious honor in college journalism, for her groundbreaking reporting on the Pissarro affair, and she was the first to illuminate the role of the Art Loss Register in the case. Unlike the previous year's winner of the Breindel prize, also from CMC, Viebeck's award received no mention on the CMC website. Why was that?

The catalogue's exhibition list is certainly brief. There is only one entry, the 1984 exhibit in Lausanne, Switzerland, which we have speculated may have been a trial run by Lohse to see if anyone was watching for the painting. Other than that, the painting has never before been shown in public (though it would have been seen in the Berlin home of Samuel Fischer by many cultural notables of the era, including future Nobel laureates Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, both published by S. Fischer Verlag).

Catherine Hickley's Bloomberg article noted that Bermann-Fischer seems to be thinking the same thing we did regarding the Lausanne exhibition:
“I don’t think we’ll ever find out from where to where the painting was transported over the years,” Bermann-Fischer said. “It truly was hidden. I think the exhibition at l’Hermitage Lausanne in 1984 was a test run, to see whether the original owners or any heirs were still on the lookout for the paintings and would make a claim.”

We also found a June 9 World Radio Switzerland interview with Bermann-Fischer in which she said much the same thing. Here's the transcript:

The interview gives some insight into why, after so many years of searching, Bermann-Fischer would now want to sell the Pissarro:
Vincent Landon, WRS: Why are you auctioning it?

Gisela Bermann-Fischer: Why shouldn’t I?

Vincent Landon, WRS: After spending so long, sort of, tracking it down?

Gisela Bermann-Fischer: Well I think looking for it, after it had been looted from my parents’ house in Vienna, certainly it was not the aim of selling it, it was a finding it—that was my aim. It was like looking up my own history, or a heritage. I was quite small when we fled Berlin, and later on we fled Vienna, and then we fled again [to Sweden and then on to the U.S., per the recent Bloomberg article].

So, let’s say, a lot of things I didn’t know… So it was not just a search for this painting, in order to go ahead and then make it [in]to money, it was sort of searching what happened in those times. And they didn’t just loot this painting, they looted everything that was in the house—my rule[??] books, my piano exercise books—everything was gone. And from there on I realized it was a loss altogether for me, too: the friends, and the house, and my bed, and my home. So that kept me going, to see ‘how did the Nazis go about all of this?’


The Bloomberg article also tells us that the safe in which the Pissarro was stored for so many years was sealed by prosecutors "as part of a continuing three-nation probe into associates of Lohse suspected of extortion and money-laundering." It goes on to say that the two men who approached Gisela Bermann-Fischer in 2007 remain under investigation by German authorities:
The men, an art dealer and an art historian, are under investigation on suspicion of extortion, according to Munich prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz. The dealer is also under investigation for money-laundering and breach of trust.

Though the two Lohse associates aren't named in the article, the only two men who had such a meeting with Bermann-Fischer would have been Munich art dealer Peter Griebert and CMC's Jonathan Petropoulos, who strictly speaking is a professor of history, not an academically-trained art historian. You may recall they were initially acting on behalf of the Art Loss Register, of which Christie's is, ironically, a part-owner.*

The ALR was set up to allow victims of Nazi looting to register their art works pro-bono in order to aid in their restitution. According to a March, 2008, Jewish Chronicle article, Griebert and Petropoulos had been hired by ALR in the hopes that his connections to Lohse could help them land a commission for helping recover the Pissarro.

At some point between the time Gisela Bermann-Fischer registered the Pissarro with ALR and the meeting that she had with Griebert and Petropoulos in Zurich in January, 2007, ALR changed its policies on providing information regarding WWII-era looted art. ALR was now requiring a substantial finder's fee. Bermann-Fischer maintains that when she balked at the paying that fee, Griebert and Petropoulos tried to cut their own deal with the implied threat that if Bermann-Fischer did not pay up, the painting might disappear forever.

Although an internal investigation by CMC cleared Professor Petropoulos of any apparent wrongdoing, Elise Viebeck at CMC's Claremont Independent obtained emails from Petropoulos to Griebert that seem to support Bermann-Fischer's account. Viebeck quoted parts of the emails in her own article:
"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, [2007].

Despite CMC's efforts to exonerate Petropoulos, if the information in the most recent Bloomberg article is accurate, it would appear the German investigation into Griebert's and Petropoulos' dealings with Bermann-Fischer is ongoing. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: the legacy of the Holocaust remains with us, even today, sixty-four years after the end of the war in Europe. Catherine Hickley says in her recent Bloomberg article that an almost incomprehensible number of artworks were looted by Nazis from victims like Bermann-Fischer's family - well over half a million pieces. The Art Loss Register has 70,000 missing works still listed. This was the largest art heist in modern history, and it has gone largely unpunished. As Bermann-Fischer put it in the Hickley article:
“There are probably thousands of paintings, still in safes, waiting for the passing away of the last possible claimants,” Bermann-Fischer said.

Bermann-Fischer's quest for the Pissarro may be over, but for many other families, the search goes on. In her World Radio Switzerland interview, Bermann-Fischer reminisced about another lost heirloom:
Vincent Landon, WRS: Where did this painting hang when you were a child? Can you remember it hanging in any…

Gisela Bermann-Fischer: Well, it was in a living-dining room of the house, lovely little old house in Vienna. And there were several paintings on the wall in this dining room. At the time people hung paintings very high up on the walls—I don’t know why—and to me of course being quite small, it seemed even higher. The perspective was very weird. So what I remembered about the painting was more or less the bottom of the painting, but it didn’t interest me that much. There was a Corot there, with a tremendous red flower—that I remembered even more vividly.

* * * * *

*In spite of the nearly 70 years searching for her painting, Gisela Bermann-Fischer (we've decided) must be very forgiving - or tolerant - to choose Christie's as her auctioneer. Not only does Christie's (which is privately-held) have a financial interest in Art Loss Register, which was keen to exploit Petropoulos' relationship to Bruno Lohse in an effort to obtain a lucrative finder's fee, but the auction house twice put on the block the Corot that had until recently been in Lohse's secret Zurich vault with the stolen Pissarro. Femme assise, tenant une Mandoline, a study painted by Corot early in his career, failed to find a minimum bidder at Christie's London Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on June 20, 2006, where it was offered as the "Property of a European Collector" with an estimate of $375,000 - $560,000 (£200,000 - £300,000). The Corot was offered a second time by Christie's on April 12, 2007, this time in New York in an auction of 19th Century European Paintings and Orientalist Art, but despite the Corot's significantly-reduced estimate of $200,000-$300,000 it once again failed to find a minimum bidder. So who is the mysterious "European Collector" trying to sell a painting from Lohse's secret safe? We're sure there's an explanation, and can't help but think the auction house has been as cooperative with European investigators as it has been with Gisela Bermann-Fischer in preparing next Tuesday's sale of her Pissarro.

Femme assise, tenant une Mandoline (1826-1828),
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot