August 14, 2006

Attempts to decide if art is looted

Posted at 7:12 pm in Similar cases

Frank Robinson, director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca NY. In this interview here, he outlines some of the measures that the museum has been taking to try & find out if any of the items in its collection might have been looted by the Nazis.

Bloomberg News

Nazi Loot, Antiquities, Art Buying: Cornell Museum’s Robinson
Aug. 14 (Bloomberg)

Frank Robinson is director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which lured 10,973 Cornell University students to classes and tours in the past year. While he has only a $3.5 million budget and $500,000 a year to buy art, his concerns mirror those of museums around the world.

Adding to the collection, Robinson shops at art fairs from Maastricht, the Netherlands, to Art Basel Miami Beach. In Ithaca, New York, he presides over research into many of the museum’s 32,000 objects to ascertain if any were stolen by Nazis or smuggled off excavation sites.

Here’s what Robinson, a tall man of 67 with a sweep of gray hair and spectacles, said in meetings at Maastricht and in telephone interviews.

Sandler: Can a museum still find bargains at art fairs, after a 10-year run-up in prices?

Robinson: My definition of a bargain is something that’s a good work of art at a reasonable price.

We found three things at Maastricht this year. A watercolor by Charles Leandre cost us about $7,500. Works on paper are a high priority for the museum as we can’t afford paintings.

Sandler: What are you doing about looking for Nazi loot in your collection?

Robinson: A student we hired as an intern spent 1-1/2 years going through the files, and is keeping on. Each vulnerable painting and drawing and object was researched, seeing what names were mentioned — dealers or looted families. All museums are retentive. We want to preserve and protect our collections. But we are also citizens of the world, with moral concerns.

Cubist Scene

We have a 1915 cubist scene of a port by Jean Metzinger. The intern found it had once belonged to Leonce Rosenberg. He was a Paris dealer whose inventory was looted by the Nazis, when Paris was occupied in the 1940s. We went to the Rosenberg family, who were all looted by the Nazis. They hired Hector Feliciano, who wrote a book on Holocaust art.

He couldn’t come to a conclusion. We don’t know if it was looted. We kept the work. Whenever it’s on exhibit, we put on a label with the story of the provenance, and we have it on our Web site.

Sandler: You’ve had some mishaps in your efforts to acquire more antiquities?

Robinson: At the Palm Beach fair in February, I saw a wonderful pair of Roman bronzes, 2nd century A.D. They were two dogs, just right for us at $22,500. It was a reputable dealer. We went back and forth and he just couldn’t offer me proof that the provenance went back far enough.

African Art

Another alumnus offered us over 100 pieces of Nok sculpture (which were turned down.) That culture of southern Nigeria goes back over 2,000 years. We have 800 pieces of African art, but this would have put us on the world map. We consulted a specialist at Cornell, and it was clear that these works were undocumented, excavated unscientifically and perhaps illegally, perhaps smuggled out of Nigeria.

Sandler: Some museums say Italy’s on a witch hunt.

Robinson: It’s not a witch hunt. Italy has been deprived of heritage items like the Euphronios vase in the Metropolitan Museum, and I can understand the Greeks wanting back the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. This is their heritage, what defines them. What if the U.S. Declaration of Independence was in a Paris library? We’d want it back and would bring tremendous pressure to bear on France.

This is phase one of the process — a recognition that countries of origin have rights, and the return of some things.

There won’t be a total transfer of title. Coins are multiples, you can’t trace them. We bought an 8th-century Indonesian Javanese bronze deity three or four years ago. We sent a photo to the ministry of culture in Indonesia, who sent it on to a museum. They said, by all means, keep it. We have a couple dozen.

Ideally, only great inheritance pieces will go back. The Met will return the Euphronios vase.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Linda Sandler in London

Last Updated: August 14, 2006 01:30 EDT

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