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The National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, and Art Provenance Research

by on September 25, 2012


Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

Nancy Yeide, head of the Department of Curatorial Records at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., in December 1997, began doing provenance research on the NGA’s holdings to ascertain whether any of the works of art had provenance problems.  In the wake of the revelations in 1996 and 1997 regarding looted Nazi gold and unpaid Swiss bank accounts, many museums, auction houses, and others began researching the provenance of art work to determine whether any had been confiscated by the Nazis and never returned to the rightful owner.

After checking NGA resources and other sources, Yeide realized that she would have to do research at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, which she learned had custody of some 10 million of pages of records relating to the looting, identifying, recovering, and returning cultural property during and after World War II.  Many of the relevant records were identified in a finding aid I had prepared in early 1997, as part of the U.S. Government’s effort to identify archival records relating to Holocaust-Era assets.

During the course of over two years Yeide spent day after day at the National Archives learning about the documentation available and undertaking research in it.  Very quickly she learned about records created by the Nazis themselves that documented what they seized.  She also learned about the records created and received by numerous American military and civilian organizations and agencies involved with cultural property during and after World War II.  Among the American military organizations she learned about were the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) Officers whose job it was, among others, to protect and recover looted cultural property; the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) of the Office of Strategic Services, who were involved with identifying the locations of looted works of art as well as the identities and locations of those involved in looting, selling and acquiring looted art; and, the Central Collecting Points in Germany that took custody of and restituted looted works of art. She also learned about how American embassies and consulates, particularly in the World War II neutral countries, and the Department of State itself acquired substantial quantities of information about looted art works.  And she learned about the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, often referred to as the Roberts Commission (chaired by US Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts).  The Roberts Commission, among other functions, compiled data on cultural property appropriated by the Axis Powers.

Her research initially focused on nine works of art in the NGA that had been apparently looted by the Nazis.  Her task was to establish that they had been recovered and returned to the rightful owners.  Two of the works illustrate her research.  These were Henri Matisse’s Still Life with Sleeping Woman and Pianist and Checker Players. Noted dealer Paul Rosenberg acquired these from the artist in early 1940.  Before leaving for the United States a few months later, Rosenberg stored these works in a bank vault in Libourne, outside Bordeaux.  By September 1941, she learned from records at the National Archives, the Nazis had gone into the bank vault and inventoried Rosenberg’s holdings, and then confiscated the art works.  She also learned from the records that the works were taken to Jeu de Paume, Paris, where they were catalogued by the staff of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).  While not locating within the ERR inventory cards at the National Archives a card for Pianist and Checker Players she did locate one for the other Matisse.  Using ALIU Consolidated Interrogation Reports on the ERR and on Hermann Goering and Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP) research records she ascertained that Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering acquired the works from the Jeu de Paume.

Still Life with Sleeping Woman

Pianist and Checker Players

Using the ALIU Consolidated Interrogation Report on the ERR and a ALIU Detailed Interrogation Report on Gustave Rochlitz, a chief participate in exchanges of painting confiscated by the ERR and important recipient of looted art, Yeide ascertained that Goering exchanged the Still Life with Sleeping Woman with Rochlitz for another work of art.  After the war, she learned from other sources, it was recovered by the Rosenbergs, who subsequently sold it in 1951.  As for the Pianist and Checker Players she learned from MFA&A and Munich Central Collecting Point records that after the war it had been recovered from Rochlitz and that the MCCP had possession of it.  It was restituted to France in May 1946 and returned to the Rosenbergs.  Both paintings ended up at the NGA and are now frequently displayed near one another.

In telling this provenance story I have not gone into all of its complexity, nor have I conveyed the dead ends or inconclusive information with which Yeide confronted in the course of her research.  All of the time spent, even the wasted time, was invaluable from an educational standpoint. By the time she had completed the process she became the acknowledged expert in navigating the vast collection of archival holdings relating to art provenance at the National Archives.  Having this knowledge resulted in her being continually asked to share that expertise.  Many of us interested in provenance research requested that she produce a handbook explaining how to undertake provenance research, including how to navigate the records at the National Archives.  She quickly agreed. Because of the enormity and complexity of the subject matter she asked Konstantin Akinsha and Amy L. Walsh, two other acknowledged provenance researchers, to co-author the work.  The result was The AAM Guide to Provenance Research, published by the American Association of Museums early in 2001.  Since that date Yeide as continued her research at College Park regarding other works of art (see NGA website regarding her efforts) and working with the National Archives with its Digital Portal to Holocaust-Era Assets records.


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