Claremont Insider: Je Ne Suis Pas Un Escroc

Monday, April 14, 2008

Je Ne Suis Pas Un Escroc

It would appear that CMC's crisis management consultants have been working overtime the past couple weeks....

The Los Angeles Times will print an article by art writer Mike Boehm tomorrow about Claremont McKenna College history professor Jonathan Petropoulos and the concerns regarding the professor's attempts at brokering a deal to return a Camille Pissarro painting to a woman in Zurich. The painting had been stolen from the woman's family by Nazis in pre-World War II Austria, and turned up last year in a Zurich bank vault controlled by a Liechtenstein foundation run by former Nazi Bruno Lohse.

Petropoulos has been working on a book about Lohse and had been acquainted with Lohse for a number of years prior to the Pissarro matter becoming public.

The Times' Boehm was able to interview Petropoulos for the article, and the story Petropoulos told Boehm was much different than the one told by the painting's rightful owner, 79-year-old Gisela Bermann Fischer. Recall that Fischer had originally been working with the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR) to recover the painting and that Petropoulos got involved in the deal through ALR.

Petropoulos, as we indicated previously, maintains that he was merely a guileless naif in the whole matter and was guilty only of being too trusting of the people he was dealing with, including Fischer and Petropoulos' German partner Peter Griebert.

Petropoulos makes it sound as if Fischer had agreed to a deal to pay the professor and Griebert 18% of the painting's auction value - 10% to Griebert and 8% to Petropoulos. The professor also claimed that it was Fischer who offered that 8% to Petropoulos for all his hard work and trouble. The LA Times piece says:

In late January 2007, he said, he viewed, authenticated and photographed the painting in the conference room of a Zurich bank. He also said he dined with Fischer and Griebert later that day and that they reached a deal: Fischer, who'd had a falling out with the Art Loss Register, would sell the Pissarro at Christie's in New York and Griebert would get his customary 10% art dealer's fee.

According to Petropoulos, Fischer then proposed that he too deserved a cut rather than just his hourly fee, and they settled on 8%.

Petropoulos' account is at odds with Fischer's. Fischer felt that Petropoulos and Griebert tried to strong arm her with threats that the painting would once again disappear if she did not meet their demands. By Fischer's account, there never was any deal; according Petropoulos, a deal had been made, and Fischer reneged on it.

In the Times piece, Petropoulos also had to deal with the matter of the embarrassing emails unearthed by Elise Viebeck, the editor for CMC's Claremont Independent newspaper. The emails, between Petropoulos and Griebert, seemed to depict a somewhat greedy Petropoulos looking for a big score and assuring Griebert that Gisela Fischer needed them and couldn't afford to ignore their demands.

Petropoulos claims in the Times article that the emails were harmless and that they've been misconstrued because they've been taken out of context:

Writing to Griebert in February 2007, the Holocaust studies [professor] said: "If Frau Fischer and [her lawyer] choose not to engage us, then we cannot say what will happen to the painting. . . . It would be difficult to give her the names and locations without any compensation. That just won't happen. . . . She simply cannot recover the painting without us. . . . She needs us."

Petropoulos said in the interview that he "was trying to comfort Griebert, who was very upset at being accused of extortion. . . . That is part of the tone of the e-mail."

Petropoulos goes on in the article to state once more that he had consulted three different art restitution experts to ensure that "his actions met legal and ethical standards." And that's about as much detail as Petropoulos has been willing to give regarding his ethical behavior in this matter.

We'd like to see an actual report, such as the one that came out of the four-month long investigation commissioned by CMC. That investigation cleared Petropoulos of any legal wrongdoing, but it has not been made public. Consequently, we're stuck relying on the professor's good word and the endorsement of CMC. Frankly, at this point that's simply not evidence enough.

The Times piece concludes with some observations by a couple people who seem to think that at a minimum Petropoulos, perhaps motivated by the prospect of a bathtub full of euros and some juicy material for his Lohse book as his share of the deal, was in way over his head:

Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register -- which also had hoped to earn a fee from the painting's return -- said he warned Petropoulos that he didn't have the expertise to broker the return of a Pissarro.

"I'm sure the chance of making a big fee may have influenced his judgment," Radcliffe said of Petropoulos. "He wants to write a book about Lohse, a perfectly valuable thing to do, but you don't get yourself into negotiations involving a stolen picture and large sums of money. He did not behave dishonestly, but he . . . got himself into something he was not qualified to handle."

Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, an expert in Holocaust art restitution who won the landmark case that returned modernist masterworks by Gustav Klimt to their rightful owners, said that academics such as Petropoulos, who helped with the Klimt case, are invaluable for researching the whereabouts and ownership histories of looted art.

But he said the same people "are out of their league" if they try to negotiate a work's return.

Of course, as we've remarked previously, Petropoulos' "I was a dupe" defense is not without its problems. For one thing, this means we have to question his judgment and pronouncements in other matters related to Nazi-looted art, which is supposed to be Petropoulos' metier. The guy, after all, has written a number of books on the subject, including one unreleased one about Bruno Lohse, the Nazi who secretly held Gisela Fischer's painting hostage.

Petropoulos can at least rest assured that as long as German officials continue their criminal investigation into Griebert's actions in the Fischer Pissarro affair, there is a chance that the truth will eventually come out.

One interesting bit comes out in the Boehm article. Petropoulos, according to an article in the Summer 2007 issue of ARTnews, was not charged by the Germans because he is an American citizen and because his conduct would have occurred outside German territory. But Boehm wrote that "a spokesman for the Criminal Court in Munich, Germany, said Friday that an investigation into possible extortion by Petropoulos and Peter Griebert, a German art dealer, was continuing."

So, the Times makes it sound as if Petropoulos, while not charged with anything, is not cleared of wrongdoing either. The articles that have come out on the subject over the past year indicated that Bruno Lohse's trust had had that secret vault for years and that Griebert had been working for the trust with access to the vault.

Seems to us this would raise a question of prior acts. Did Griebert restititute other paintings before the Fischer Pissarro episode? How many? And did Petropoulos ever work with Griebert on restitution before? Perhaps the German court's investigation will resolve these questions as well.

* * *

The Claremont Conservative jumped on this story as well with a post earlier this evening.