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Nazi-Era Provenance Research

Introduction

These pages present the results of research undertaken by the MFA on provenance, or the history of ownership, of its collection of European art. While provenance research is traditionally a part of curatorial work, particular attention is today being paid to ownership history during the years of the Nazi regime and World War II, 1933 to 1945. This is the result of a growing awareness about the loss of artwork through illegal sales, seizures and looting at this time.

The goal of the MFA’s in-depth research on Nazi-era provenance is to identify objects in the collection that were taken or lost and never returned to their owners. We hope that anyone with additional information will come forward; ultimately, this will assist in the identification and restitution of works of art that were lost during this period.

If you have provenance-related inquiries or information, please contact provenance@mfa.org.

Research Method

The Museum of Fine Arts’ collection contains approximately 1,600 European paintings and 21,000 works of sculpture and decorative art. Since early 1998, a systematic review of the provenance of the collection has been ongoing, with the goal of identifying objects that may have been seized or improperly sold during the Nazi era. Eliminated from consideration are those works of art acquired by the museum before 1933 and those created after 1945.

About half the European paintings have histories of ownership that preclude their transfer in Europe during the period in question—many, for instance, belonged to families in Boston in the late nineteenth century and came directly to the MFA from those families. But many other paintings have histories of ownership that contain very little detail or have gaps during the years 1933-1945. These objects are the subject of further research by the museum.

Intensive research on the sculpture and decorative arts collection was begun in 2004. The online records are currently undergoing further research. As additional information comes to light, it will be added to the online collections database.

There are many reasons for gaps in provenance, ranging from a past owner’s desire for anonymity to an absence of records of transactions. Resolving provenance gaps for the period in question may be further complicated by the fact that records have been lost or destroyed. Although it is probable that most of the objects with gaps do not have problematic pasts, efforts are underway to obtain more information about them.

List of Works

The objects featured on the list of works have been identified by the MFA as priorities for further research. They changed hands in Europe between 1933 and 1945, and are associated with individuals who may have lost property as the result of Nazi persecution. Each object has undergone careful examination by our curators and still has unresolved questions regarding its history.

The inclusion of a work of art on this list does not in any way demonstrate that it was looted or improperly acquired. The list will be updated as further information becomes available. 

Resolved Claims

Since the provenance research project was begun in 1998, the MFA has resolved several World War II and Nazi-era restitution claims:

Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior by Eglon van der Neer

In June 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts reached a financial settlement with the heirs and the estate of Walter Westfeld for Eglon van der Neer’s Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior, allowing the painting to remain at the museum.

Walter Westfeld (b. 1889 – d. after 1942) operated an art gallery in Wuppertal, Germany, during the Nazi period. A 1935 decree from the Reichs Chamber of Fine Arts forbade him from working as a dealer because he was Jewish, and he was ordered to close the gallery in May of 1936. That very month, an exhibition of works of art owned by Westfeld was held at the Galerie Kleucker in the nearby city of Düsseldorf, including a “Company Scene” by Eglon van der Neer. This was almost certainly the MFA painting.

The paper trail ends there, and begins again five years later. The MFA purchased the painting from E. and A. Silberman Galleries, New York, in December, 1941. Silberman probably acquired the painting in the spring of that year, but it has not been ascertained from whom.

It is not known for certain how the MFA’s Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior left Westfeld’s possession and made its way to the United States. Without further documentation, its exact provenance may never be known. However, it is difficult to imagine a scenario by which he sold the painting voluntarily in Nazi Germany, receiving proceeds over which he had free disposal.

In November, 1938, Walter Westfeld was arrested for violating Germany’s foreign exchange laws. He spent the remaining years of his life in captivity and on January 23, 1943, was sent to his death at Auschwitz.

Read the press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
See the painting

Tapestries from the Life of Urban VIII Series

In March, 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston finalized a settlement with the heirs of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, allowing the museum to retain four seventeenth-century tapestries, which were included in a forced sale in Berlin in 1935.

The four tapestries were part of a larger series that depicted the life and achievements of Pope Urban VIII. By 1928, eight tapestries from the series, including the four at the MFA, were owned by the art dealer Margraf in Berlin. Margraf was run by Jakob Oppenheimer and his wife Rosa, who were Jewish. In 1933, the Oppenheimers fled Germany to avoid Nazi persecution and relocated to France. During their absence they were forced out of their management roles at Margraf and were forbidden from performing any legal transactions for the company.

As a well-known Jewish business, Margraf was extinguished as quickly as possible by the Nazi regime. The gallery stock was sold off rapidly in a series of auctions held in Berlin in 1935. The Oppenheimers were unable to realize the proceeds from these sales. Recent research confirmed that the four MFA tapestries were sold to an unknown buyer at one of the 1935 auctions. The MFA contacted the Oppenheimer heirs in 2010 to inform them of their location at the MFA, and to begin settlement discussions.

The tapestries have been at the MFA since the 1950s, and were gifts from Eugene Garbáty, a German Jewish art collector. Garbáty purchased six of the eight tapestries from an unknown dealer shortly after they sold at auction in 1935. He was told that they had come out of a castle in Austria, and was unaware that they had belonged to Margraf or been in a forced sale. Garbáty, himself a victim of Nazi persecution, brought four of the tapestries with him when he fled Germany for the United States in 1939; he gave them to the MFA between 1950 and 1952.

Read the press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
See the tapestries

Entombment of Saint Vigilius

In the fall of 2010, the MFA returned to the Museo Diocesano Tridentino (Diocesan Museum of Trent, Italy) an embroidered panel, the Entombment of Saint Vigilius, dating from around 1390–1391. The embroidery depicts the burial of Saint Vigilius (b. about 353–d. 405), the third bishop and patron saint of Trent, and the delivery of the news of his martyrdom to the pope and Emperor Theodosius.

The narrative cycle of the life of the saint was depicted on a number of embroidered panels, which were originally sewn onto the consecration vestments of George of Liechtenstein, appointed bishop prince of Trent in 1390. In the early 20th century, the five embroideries that remained from the original cycle were housed in the Museo Diocesano Tridentino. The museum’s original location in the Theological Seminary was subsequently closed, and the embroideries were placed in the cathedral sacristy. There, presumably between 1939 and 1944, all trace was lost of the panel showing the burial of Vigilius and the announcement of his death. The MFA purchased the embroidery in 1946 from an Italian art dealer in New York without knowledge of its subject matter or provenance. Prior to the acquisition, curatorial staff inquired about its history and were told only that its previous owner had inherited it along with a large collection of other antique objects. The Museum had no additional information about its provenance until 2008, when Dr. Evelin Wetter of the Abegg-Stiftung (Riggisberg, Switzerland) contacted the MFA, indicating that the panel was once part of the Saint Vigilius series from the Museo Diocesano Tridentino. Curatorial research by the MFA confirmed that the embroidery belonged to that series. In June 2008, the MFA contacted the Museo Diocesano to initiate discussions about its return, which concluded in April 2010 with the signing of an agreement by the MFA, the Archdiocese of Trent, and the Museo Diocesano. 

Read the press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
See the embroidery

Two Nudes (Lovers) by Oskar Kokoschka

In March 2007, the Museum of Fine Arts received a restitution claim for Oskar Kokoschka’s Two Nudes (Lovers) (accession no. 1973.196). Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, represented as the sole and unrelated heir of the last surviving son of Oskar Reichel, the painting’s former owner, asserted that Reichel was forced to sell Two Nudes (Lovers) under duress in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1939; later, her counsel asserted that the painting had been confiscated from Reichel by the Nazis. Upon receipt of the claim, the MFA conducted a comprehensive investigation of the painting’s provenance and concluded that it has legal title to the work. The MFA shared with the claimant’s counsel the results of its research. When the claim was not withdrawn, the Museum filed suit in January 2008 to confirm its ownership of the painting. In May 2009, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel ruled that the MFA is entitled to retain ownership of Two Nudes (Lovers); the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision in October 2010. A brief summary of the research is presented here.

Oskar Reichel (b. 1869 – d. 1943) of Vienna, who was Jewish, was a prominent collector of Austrian Expressionist art. He patronized contemporary artists, including Egon Schiele, Max Oppenheimer, and Oskar Kokoschka. Reichel actively bought and sold their work, playing an important role on the Viennese art market. He probably bought Two Nudes (Lovers) directly from Kokoschka around 1914 or 1915, shortly after it was painted.

By 1924, Reichel had developed a business relationship with Otto Kallir (b. 1894 - d. 1978), a Jewish art dealer who opened the Neue Galerie in Vienna in 1923. Reichel consigned Two Nudes (Lovers), along with other paintings by Kokoschka, for sale through Kallir in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1938, Kallir fled Vienna and turned the Neue Galerie over to his non-Jewish secretary. He opened a new gallery, the Galerie St. Etienne, in Paris. In February 1939, Reichel transferred ownership of five Kokoschka paintings—including Two Nudes (Lovers)—to Kallir, who exhibited them in his Paris gallery that spring. Later that year, Kallir emigrated to New York and opened a branch of the Galerie St. Etienne there. He exhibited Two Nudes (Lovers) frequently between 1940 and 1945, both in his New York gallery and in traveling exhibitions throughout the United States. From New York, Kallir sent money for the five Kokoschka paintings to Oskar Reichel’s two sons, Raimund and Hans, with whom he was in communication; they were living in South America and the United States, respectively.

Although Raimund and Hans had been able to leave Austria, Oskar Reichel and his wife Malvine remained in Vienna. Their home furnishings company was forcibly closed after the anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht in 1938, and in 1941 they were forced to sell their shares in a family-owned building, with the proceeds going into blocked accounts. Their oldest son, Max, who was mentally ill, was deported and killed. In 1943, Oskar passed away from natural causes and Malvine Reichel was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She survived and joined her son Hans in the United States after the war. Malvine Reichel made successful restitution claims for certain assets lost in Austria, including the property sold in 1941. She relinquished her claim to other assets, including the family home, which she had sold to acquaintances in 1938. Raimund Reichel applied for and received compensation from the Austrian authorities for damages due to Nazi persecution. In his application, he referred specifically to paintings by Anton Romako that his father had sold under duress. However, no claim was ever made for any of the five Kokoschka paintings, nor was any indication made that members of the Reichel family considered the 1939 transaction to be invalid.

In 1945, Kallir sold Two Nudes (Lovers) on the New York art market. Around 1948 it was acquired by Sarah Reed Blodgett (later Platt), who bequeathed it to the MFA in 1973. Since that time, the painting has been exhibited and published extensively. It is currently on view in the Rabb Gallery at the MFA.

Read the initial press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Read the press release about the October 15, 2010, US Court of Appeals decision
See the painting

Meissen figure of Augustus III

In 2006, the MFA received as part of a bequest an eighteenth-century Meissen figure of Augustus III, which it did not formally accession, or make part of the museum collection. MFA curators had already recognized the object as coming from the famous Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) of Dresden. Works of art from the Dresden museums had been put in storage during World War II, and the figure of Augustus III went missing during this time. The statue was returned to the Porzellansammlung in 2006.

Virgin and Child

On November 18, 2004, the MFA deaccessioned the panel painting Virgin and Child for restitution to its rightful owner, Mrs. Anna Konopka Unrug of Poland. This was in response to the restitution claim for the painting received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland on behalf of Mrs. Unrug.

The painting once formed the central panel of a triptych that belonged to Mrs. Unrug’s grandfather, Tadeusz Konopka (b. 1844 – d. 1903), and was passed by descent to his son, Józef (b. 1884 –d . 1940) of Jaroslaw and Warsaw. Józef was killed in 1940 after being taken hostage by the Red Army. The painting remained in his Warsaw apartment, where his wife Helena (b. 1899) and daughter Anna (b. 1921) lived, and was plundered during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It is not known when the triptych was separated; neither of the side panels has been located.

The MFA purchased the painting in 1970 from a dealer in Frankfurt, Germany, without knowledge of its wartime or immediate postwar provenance. At that time it was attributed to the Master of the Saint Barbara Altar, a Silesian painter active in the fifteenth century. Research by curatorial staff revealed that it had been in Tadeusz Konopka’s possession and remained in Poland during World War II. This information was made available on the MFA Web site, which enabled the claimant, through the Polish Ambassador, to locate the painting.

See the painting.

Adoration of the Magi

On October 19, 2000 the MFA reached an agreement with the heirs of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe for a partial purchase and partial donation of the painting Adoration of the Magi, by Corrado Giaquinto (accession number 1992.163). Recognizing that the heirs of Mr. Gentili di Giuseppe were the rightful owners of the painting, this agreement enabled the MFA to acquire the Adoration from them and keep it on display in the galleries.

Its previous owner, Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, was a Jewish Italian businessman living in Paris. He died of natural causes in April of 1940, leaving his estate to his children. With the fall of France to Hitler in June of that year, his family fled the country. German law forbade the return of those who had left occupied territory, so his family was unable to assert its claim to the works of art. A surrogate administrator was appointed to manage the family's affairs and the art collection was auctioned in Paris in 1941. While the estate received the revenue from the sale, the family lost its ownership of the paintings.

In 1997, Mr. Gentili di Giuseppe's heirs brought legal action against the Musée du Louvre and the State of France to have the April 1941 sale declared null and void. On June 2, 1999, the Court of Appeals of Paris nullified the sale, determining that Mr. Gentili di Giuseppe's family had been prevented from attending to the administration of the estate. Five paintings held by the Louvre were subsequently returned to the family. By February 1999 the heirs had begun pursuing individual claims regarding the other paintings in the 1941 auction and contacted the MFA about the Adoration of the Magi at that time.

The MFA had purchased the painting in April 1992 from Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd., a distinguished firm of art dealers established in London in the early nineteenth century. The firm, in turn, had purchased the painting at Christie’s, Monaco, in June 1990. Because the MFA had purchased the painting before any claims were registered with the French government, the heirs affirmed that the Museum acquired the work in good faith, without knowledge that the 1941 sale was problematic.

Read the press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
See the painting.

Links

We have provided links to other Web sites maintained by organizations and institutions worldwide that are committed to assisting in the search and recovery of works of art lost during the Nazi era.


Art Loss Register
Association of Art Museum Directors Object Registry
Association of Art Museum Directors Standards and Practices
Catalogue of the Musées Nationaux Récupération, France
Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property
Commission for Art Recovery
Commission for Looted Art in Europe
Cultural Plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg
Czech Republic Art Restitution
Getty Provenance Index
Holocaust-Era Assets: Records & Research at the National Archives & Records Administration
International Foundation for Art Research
International Research Portal for Records Related to Nazi-Era Cultural Property
Lost Art Internet Database
Museum Security Network
Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal
Netherlands unclaimed art
Project for the Documentation of Wartime Cultural Losses
U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Research in Collections
U.S. National Gallery of Art: World War II Resources at the Gallery