At a recent dinner party, a friend expressed his fascination with provenance (Defined: the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art). He was astonished that if he bought something as a bona fide purchaser, or in good faith, that he may someday be required to return it without compensation if it was found to be a valuable cultural relic that was stolen, looted or untrue in record of ownership. I, on the other hand, was astonished that this concept seemed so unfamiliar to him.
And perhaps this is why we began a series of articles in the IMA’s magazine on the provenance of important works in the Museum’s collection, written by Annette Schlagenhauff. As the IMA’s Associate Curator for Research, Annette has spent years tracing the paths of works of art from the artists’ hands to the walls of the IMA. The stories are fascinating and not without moral ambiguities and missing pieces.
The fall issue of the magazine features the IMA’s Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant) by Vincent van Gogh. As one of the most important and valuable works in the Museum’s collection, Annette peers beyond the paint into the 120 year life of the painting. Painted in southern France in 1889, its early history is well documented, however, during the time of Nazi regime power when many of Europe’s art collections were in jeopardy, its provenance is spotty. Did Landscape at Saint-Rémy leave Europe legitimately or was it tied up in the Nazi’s campaign of looting Jewish art collections?
[This is why the magazine should be online. I could link to the rest of the story here and you could happily finish reading. Soon enough!]
Long story short, papers found in the New York Public Library confirmed that the painting left Europe still in the family of the original owners and had been consigned to a New York-based art dealer when arriving in the United States. The IMA can breath a sigh of relief and say that the provenance of the Van Gogh is clear.
But what would have happened if the provenance was not clear? Should research suggest the name of a possible legitimate owner, the IMA is obligated to attempt to contact them to discover more. Many paintings in the IMA’s collection have gaps in their provenance in the critical years of 1933-1945. Per the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) guidelines, the Museum posts these works on the Nazi-era Provenance Internet Portal and the IMA Web site–provenance research project. The facts unique to each painting help determine the course of action. (More here)
I think there are more than a few of us who would like Annette’s captivating, Nancy Drew-like sleuth job. No doubt it’s nerve wracking, hard work. In the winter issue of the magazine, and online, you’ll be able to join Annette in her journey to discover the past of the Dutch painting Valkhof at Nijmegen by Aelbert Cuyp. I see National Geographic documentaries in her future.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Come to the IMA on October 3 or 23 to see The Rape of Europa in The Toby. This is an amazing opportunity to watch a documentary film that examines Nazi looting of the great museums and private art collections of Europe in an attempt to obliterate cultural identities. The film’s epic scope explores a descendant of painter Gustav Klmit’s flight to regain a portrait of her aunt, Louvre staff members who packed and moved 400,000 pieces of art as the Nazis advanced, and the “Monuments Men” who plumbed salt mines to recover stolen art after the war. You’ll be faced with the question: “Which is of more value: a work of art or a human life?”
Preview The Rape of Europa below and get your tickets now.