Claremont Insider: CMC Professor Defended by Dean of Faculty

Monday, March 17, 2008

CMC Professor Defended by Dean of Faculty

We received another note from the reader who alerted us to the news of Claremont McKenna Professor Jonathan Petropoulos and the Camille Pissarro painting that had been looted by Nazis in pre-World War II Austria.

The reader's most recent note contained a forwarded message from CMC Dean of Faculty Gregory Hess to CMC staff following a lengthy investigation into the matter by the Los Angeles law firm O'Melveny & Myers. The investigation cleared Professor Petropoulos any legal wrongdoing.

Yet, according to an article in CMC's Claremont Independent, some experts in the field of art restitution questioned Petropoulos' ethical conduct. In the Independent's article, Petropoulos defended his professional ethics in the case, but the Independent turned up some emails from Petropoulos that, on the surface at least, seemed to support some of the criticisms that remain.

One concern is the involvement of Petropoulos' associate, Munich art dealer Peter Griebert, with a man named Bruno Lohse. Lohse oversaw much of the looting of artwork from Nazi-occupied Europe during the war years. The painting in question was one of these and had been concealed in a secret Swiss bank vault and came to light after Lohse's death in March, 2007. It turned out that a trust controlled by Lohse called Schönart Anstalt was in charge of the vault.

The Independent explained the connection between Petropoulos, Griebert, and Lohse, who reportedly is the subject of a forthcoming book by Professor Petropoulos:

Legal documents show that Griebert, Petropoulos' associate, had been Lohse's aid and connected to Schönart Anstalt since 1988, and had entered the vault over 20 times.

Petropoulos claimed in ARTNews never to have known of Griebert and Lohse's mutual connection to Schönart Anstalt or their mutual enterprises. He has, however, admitted to meeting Lohse "dozens of times," though in a recent email exchange refused to say how he met Griebert. A source close to the investigation says that it is very likely that as Lohse's aid, Griebert would have been present for Lohse's first meeting with Petropoulos, and that the two were familiar over the succeeding years. In the acknowledgments portion of The Faustian Bargain, Petropoulos' second book, Petropoulos thanks Lohse and Griebert along with many others for sharing "knowledge of the figures in this study."

Petropoulos and Griebert had tried to negotiate the return to the Pissarro painting to its rightful owner for a large fee, at first while working for a British company called Art Loss Register (ALR), and later on their own. The original owners' heir, 78-year-old Gisela Fischer, however, was under the impression that she had retained ALR on a pro bono basis as a victim of wartime looting, which was the originally arrangement. Fischer claimed that Petropoulos and Griebert dangled the threat of the painting disappearing again if their fee was not paid, and emails obtained by the Claremont Independent seem to support Fischer's contentions.

It's evident the matter is extremely convoluted, but as we've indicated, CMC's investigation cleared Petropoulos, and the college wants to move on, despite the lingering concerns from some among the CMC family.

Here is the forwarded message from Gregory Hess:

Vice President for Academic Affairs
and Dean of the Faculty

March 7, 2008

Dear Colleagues:

Last summer, published media reports contained assertions that Professor Jonathan Petropoulos had engaged in potentially questionable conduct relating to restitution of a painting that had been confiscated in Austria prior to World War II.

In response, the College undertook a thorough review and retained an outside law firm to assist in the four-month investigation. That process is now complete. Based on evidence examined here and abroad, the College has concluded that Professor Petropoulos adhered to applicable contractual and legal obligations in attempting to arrange return of the painting. In addition, the College concluded that Professor Petropoulos' account of his actions was accurate.

We appreciate Professor Petropoulos' patience and professionalism during this lengthy review, and thank him for his cooperation.



Gregory D. Hess