25 August 2015

Interview with Simon Goodman, author of "The Orpheus Clock"

 Interview conducted by Angelina Giovani

[Editor's note] Simon Goodman is the grandson of Friedrich Gutmann, a Dutch Jewish banker whose possessions were plundered during the German occupation of the Netherlands and who paid with his life at the hands of the Gestapo. One of the paintings that Gutmann lost was a pastel by Edgar Degas entitled "Landscape with Smokestacks", that ended up in the collection of an American billionaire, Daniel Searle, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. The case became known as Goodman v. Searle and led to a bruising David against Goliath-style battle between the Goodman heirs and an extremely wealthy man who refused to return the pastel, on principle, arguing his good faith in the acquisition of the looted work. The outcome was mixed as the case led to a settlement.  Twenty years later, Simon Goodman has penned “The Orpheus Clock” which recounts his family’s history and the ordeals it faced during the tumultuous 20th century and its endless quest for justice to recover lost works and objects of art and, with them, a piece of the family's plundered memory and spirit. 

Landscape with Smokestacks, Edgar Degas

Mr.Goodman, when did you decide you wanted to write "The Orpheus Clock"? Was there a particular moment or event that triggered your need to tell the story?

I had the idea to write “The Orpheus Clock” almost 20 years ago. While researching two Degas paintings from my grandfather’s collection, I was angry to discover that he was not mentioned in any of the catalogues raisonné about that artist. I was shocked by how quickly my family had gone from fame and fortune to almost complete obscurity. It became my mission to make sure my family would not be forgotten. It was also my process for getting to know the family I never knew.
The Orpheus Clock

Why did you decide to use the Orpheus Clock as the title of the book? Would you say there is an underlying metaphorical relation between the ancient Greek myth and some of the events in the book?

The Orpheus Clock, I feel, symbolizes obviously the passage of time and in this case the reversal or return of my family’s fortunes. After decades of suffering the clock’s hand points towards happier times. Meanwhile the Orpheus legend symbolizes the will power to make great change. The Clock also represents my largely successful attempt to reunite the remaining dispersed fragments of my family, many of whom had never known each other before. Finally the restitution of this remarkable clock is also significant because it was my first direct restitution from Germany.

Most of us find it hard to even imagine what it would mean to be left with tens of boxes containing documents of the kind you were presented with. Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you and your brother hadn’t decided to go through them?

I don’t think there was ever any doubt that my brother and I would continue our father’s work once we understood the enormous extent of what had been taken from our family. That being said, I have often wondered how different my life (and many others) would have been had my father’s girl-friend decided not to pack up all his old papers – it would have been so easy for somebody to throw them all away assuming they were obsolete and worthless.

Almost half of the book is dedicated to telling the story of your ancestors. When did you start tracing your family’s genealogy? Was it a parallel process to locating the art works or did you treat it as a separate process? Could you walk us through it?

Tracing my family’s genealogy and tracking our lost artworks went hand-in-hand. The works of art gave me an insight into the characters of those that had collected and cherished them. Also by following my grandfather and great-grandfather’s footsteps, as the amassed their collections, I gained invaluable insight into their habits and lifestyles. Growing up after the war with very little family, it was important to me to be able to establish my roots. Now that I have managed to document hundreds of relatives and ancestors I have discovered a huge family that I am justly proud of.

The first part of the book does a brilliant job in painting a vivid picture of events at the turn of the century. There are parts in the book that make reference to what Eugen, Louise, Fritz and others might have felt or said in certain occasions. Were these excerpts derived from actual letters and/or written records or are they to be attributed to your attempt to give them a voice and bring them closer to the reader?

Fritz and Lili Gutmann

Virtually all our family records and letters disappeared during the war. Most of my recreation of the Gutmann family is based on what I was able to glean from my father’s notes and his sister’s recollections. A small amount of detail has also been preserved by the historical society of the Dresdner Bank. The rest I have extrapolated from snippets about the family that I found in old books and periodicals.

If you had to single out one of the moments in your mission to recover your family’s treasure as the most emotionally charged, which one would you pick? Why?

There have been many highly emotional events concerning the recovery of my family’s treasures.

"Sensuality," by Franz von Stuck

However one of the highlights of my saga is definitely when the Franz von Stuck “Sensuality” was taken down off the wall by the man who had had it for 40 years. He then helped me carry it to my car, where we put it carefully in the trunk. This was perhaps the closest I have got to a perfect restitution: no money changed hands and the legal work was kept to a minimum. After much conversation and deliberation the collector just decided to do the right thing. This was an intensely gratifying moment. The return of the Baldung-Grien comes fairly close behind, whereas all the other cases have involved considerable blood, sweat and tears.

In 1991, your father wrote a small memoir summarizing his attempts to recover the artworks and is quoted as saying “Only the lawyers made money”. Almost a quarter of a century later, is that an accurate statement?   

My experience with lawyers has been fairly similar to that of my father’s, which is why I have trained myself to do my own research and then approach the appropriate collector, museum or government directly. In fact my approach as the representative of the family and the direct heir has stood me in good stead. The possessor of the artwork is less likely to engage expensive lawyers of their own; in contrast a fruitful dialogue is often the result.

As you now know first hand from your experience, provenance research is an extensive, long and expensive process. What changes would you make to the‘mechanisms’ currently in place that would encourage more claimants to come forward and help correct the elitist approach that is often taken when deciding whether a claim is worth taking forward or not?

I think the reason provenance research has become such a rarified pursuit is largely due to the fact that over the centuries the recording of provenance history has been handled in a very cavalier manner. It has long suited the art business to hide behind these opaque practices. There is no great mystery to art provenance if the data is readily available. Obviously we would all benefit from a national database to which all accredited museums would contribute – galleries too ideally.

Every item has its own history, therefore every case should be treated as an independent search in its own right. But when the number of objects is in the hundreds, time is not on our side and it is impossible to deal with each object individually. Has a systematic approach to methodology come out as a result of your many years of researching many objects at once? Do you have any advice for new researchers who find it overwhelming to research multiple objects at the same time?

My approach to prioritizing my claims is fairly simple. At any given time at the top of the stack is the one I think is the most likely to succeed. The next priority involves the greatest number of pieces that are still in one specific place. Concerning research, I find it very helpful to stay focused on one specific school or medium i.e. Dutch 17th genre painters or Italian baroque bronzes. Collectors and galleries also operate within similar parameters. Invariably when looking for a particular Northern European Mannerist silver sculpture I find several mentions of others that were in my family’s collection.

As you state at the end of the book, your search is still ongoing. Could you share with the readers what your next quest is?
Several cases have been on the back burner while I finished my book. Coming to the fore now is a claim for eleven rare, and very beautiful, Italian hand-painted majolica dishes, which I found a couple of years ago in a Dutch museum. I also expect an imminent settlement for some Renaissance jewelry. Meanwhile I am negotiating with a Bavarian museum for the return of several antiques, mostly Meissen, including some of my grandmother’s coffee cups.  
Sword of Damocles, Avelli

All photos, except the reproduction of "Landscape with Smokestacks" and the book cover were supplied by Simon Goodman.

24 August 2015

Hitler's Art Thief: A Review of Susan Ronald's Book on Hildebrand Gurlitt and the Looting of Europe's Treasures (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015)

by Ori Z Soltes

This book may not be for everyone: if all you are interested in is the number of artworks that surfaced out of the anonymity of Cornelius Gurlitt's collections back in 2013, then you might as well skip it and google a few newspaper articles instead. But if you keep wondering not only how he ended up with such a cache (okay, from his father), and, more to the point, how his father, Hildebrand, acquired them and managed to pass them onto his son, beyond the newspaper references to Hildebrand as an art buyer--or, rather, art plunderer--on behalf of Hitler, then this book is required reading.

Anybody who spends time studying the Holocaust is aware of how fraught with contradiction its architects were--just think of how neither Hitler nor any of his inner circle conformed to the "Aryan" physical description that he spent so many years championing; that the tall, muscular blond super-race of Uebermenschen whom he intended to lead forward into a thousand-year-long future would by definition have excluded Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Bormann and Hitler himself. And consider the millions who cheered these fine fellows on without apparently noticing the contradiction.
Cornelius Gurlitt in his younger years
Susan Ronald's book explores various elements of this multi-leveled irony, particularly as it pertained to the lust for art and the means of acquiring it. She offers the larger contexts of both the shaping of the Nazi period in and beyond Germany and where the Gurlitt family fit into and outside those contexts. Hildebrand's father, Cornelius, was a fairly prominent art historian (a consummate specialist in Baroque art and architecture) who loved but was disappointed in Hildebrand. For the son opted, in the Age of Hitler, to abandon the Ivory Tower in its theoretical purity for the intrinsic venality of the commercial world of galleries and art dealers.

Susan Ronald
Given that this was the Age of Hitler, however, Hildebrand should not only have fallen short of the enormous success he came to enjoy. He and his family should probably have ended up on a freight train to the East rather than his taking trains and planes all over the East and West to acquire art. For one of his grandparents was a Jew. making him a 25% mischling--certainly enough to qualify for a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. And he did have quite a bevy of enemies and competitors, some in very high places. But he had just the right friends and patrons in high places to convince the Fuehrer of his absolute value as an instrument to acquire art for the regime. Far from being persecuted, he prospered.

As Hitler's premier art acquirer, he ingathered not only the sort of art that could go into the expansive museum planned for Linz, Austria, Hitler's virtual home town, but art for Goebbels and Goering and the others (including art that Hitler would not have approved, considering it degenerate), and art for lesser Nazis, and art that, albeit unacceptable to Nazi taste, could be traded, bartered, or sold either to acquire proper art or for armaments and other supplies needed for a voracious Reich. Hildebrand Gurlitt seemed to have a unique talent for finding and acquiring the best among the works of art that could serve one or more of these purposes.

One could almost--almost--read this book and forget that the context of the central events is the double matrix of World War II and the Holocaust; that millions of people were being slaughtered across Europe in foxholes and gas chambers during the financial-aesthetic intrigues about which we are reading. Ms. Ronald does not expend undo energy to focus on the horrors going on all around Hildebrand and his little world within a world on fire. But that is part of her point: he operates as if ensconced in an Iron (not Ivory!) Tower that shields him and his family from that fire. And all of those with whom he is engaged are so singularly obsessed with the art that they are pushing across diverse borders while similarly protected, that they neither think about gas chambers nor about the fate of those from whose collections they are swallowing up. The reader is left to ponder the quiet horror of such deafness and blindness.

Often Ms Ronald's references to aspects of the key figures' personalities and activities fall short of drawing a definitive conclusion regarding their lack or absence of a conscience: she provides enough information for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about these characters without forcing those conclusions upon us. She tells the story adeptly and with careful attention to just the right amount of detail to make her points without burying the reader. But she does not allow us to escape without conclusions nipping at the heels of our minds.

This is necessary to her intentions as a biographer who, in embedding the story of her key character within the larger and particularized history in which his life and death played out, has a still larger goal: to offer this story as a tale that reflects, in the end, on the larger question of human beings and what we are and what we are willing to do--often to each other--to achieve our ends. After all, as we learn, Hitler played off most of the key figures in his inner circle against each other; and nearly all of them, while they were murdering and/or stealing every possible material possession from their victims were also, where they could, defrauding each other--and cheating Hitler whenever it was safe to do so.

What makes this book so important is not only the parts of the story that offer such an incisive psychological portrait of Hildebrand Gurlitt and of all of those around him engaged in the art theft process in which he was engaged. It is an important reminder to those of us involved in the restitution struggle and an eye-opener for those who are not, that the web of deceit, venality, greed, lack of empathy for fellow human beings was far-flung across the human landscape.

Just as the Nazis could not have succeeded in annihilating so many millions of Jews and others without the willing and often enthusiastic cooperation of Frenchmen, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians (to name a few groups)--and not just Germans and Austrians--the movement into the Reich of millions upon millions of works of art and other property from all over Europe would not have been possible without the cooperation of an army of individuals from the art world.

Ms. Ronald pushes us to recognize how banal, indeed, evil can be. How those who presume to be the champions of civilization because they protect its artifacts--art historians, museum curators and directors, gallerists, art dealers and the like--can be and emphatically were the prisoners of their own greed again and again. (So much for the purity of the Ivory Tower). There are no national borders for this ugly side of human nature--not even a vast Atlantic Ocean can separate good from evil. For all of those works slated for trade and barter or exchange for cash rather than for hoarding obviously required and found willing middlemen in "neutral" countries like Spain, Portugal, Sweden and above all, Switzerland, and hungry outlets in the North and South American art markets.

We are still fighting battles for works plundered by Gurlitt and his associates that ended up in the American art world, where no questions of provenance were asked as eager buyers acquired paintings stolen from those slated for annihilation. And the same auction houses in Paris (such as Drouot) that offered their services during and right after the war to help thieves like Gurlitt abscond with property plundered from Jewish victims are still offering their services today to thieves eager to cash in on the sacred cultural and spiritual artifacts of the Hopi and Acoma tribal communities.

The miscues at the end of WWII, from the all-too-brief amount of time available to focus on Gurlitt and his cohorts to the lack of art awareness possessed by those who did interrogate these clean-handed allies of history's most devoted mass-murderers are the subject of Ms Ronald's last chapters. We walk away understanding, if we did not before, how the swiftly-arriving Cold War helped undercut the time and energy needed for more thorough investigations, while gritting our teeth at all of those who walked away, scot-free--and with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art still within their possession (Gurlitt was one of the most important of these, at least given recent events).

We walk away with many questions. We wonder why it took the Germans so long after the almost accidental discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt's hidden collections to begin to let the world know about them. And why the process of distinguishing what was plundered from what not has been wrapped in veils, and when the process will reasonably be finished. And how it is that a substantial group of Gurlitt's holdings ended up in a late will destined for the Bern Museum. And how the museum can claim to do the necessa1ry provenance research with such a small staff, so quickly.

We walk away wondering, as Ms Ronald does, how much is still hidden in how many vaults in how many places, waiting to be found. With Cornelius Gurlitt's death a little over a year ago, we may never know exactly how much is still gathered here or there from what his father managed to steal for himself while he was stealing for Hitler and others. And what of works plundered and perhaps hidden by the likes of Moeller and Voss? This book is the proof that, just when you thought the last word had been written on the Holocaust, in its profound self-contradictory ineffability, there are more awaiting the pen.

Dr. Gachet: From confiscation to exile

[Editor's note: This is the third and last installment of a three-part series on The Portrait of Dr. Gachet produced by Angelina Giovani, which is inspired by Cynthia Salzman's masterful treatment of the history of van Gogh's masterpiece as it survived the Nazi era, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, only to find itself at the antipodes of the world, in Japan.]

by Angelina Giovani
Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Several years after the rise to power of Hitler in Germany, Josef Angerer, a decorative arts dealer whose main client was Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, paid a visit to Friedrich Krebs, the Nazi mayor of Frankfurt, to discuss the fate of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet by van Gogh. He claimed that his job was to make sure that there would no obstacles to the sale of the Portrait. Krebs, questioning Angerer’s authority, decided not to take action until Goering gave specific reasons as to why Gachet should be sold. Firstly, the Portrait's style and form were inconsistent with the newly imposed Nazi esthetics. Secondly, the Reich had every intention of de-accessioning such works, which meant  confiscation without compensation. Lastly, instead of destroying these works, it might be wiser to sell them on the international art market outside the borders of the Reich and, by so doing, generate badly-needed foreign exchange.

Krebs asked for assistance from Kremmers, his deputy, into looking into the circumstances of the donation to the Frankfurt Städtische Museum.  The Frankfurt City Council and the city attorney sought legal avenues by which to keep the picture in Frankfurt under the New Order.  Johanna Mössinger, the then owner, had donated the piece, on the condition that it be on permanent display. Should this condition not be upheld, the owner had the right to request the return of the painting.
It became impossible to hold on to Gachet and other paintings from her collection for much longer. Goering ordered the seizure of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet along with two other paintings, Daubigny’s Garden by Van Gogh and A Quarry by Paul Cézanne. He sold the Portrait along with the two other works, to Franz Koenigs, a German collector and banker who lived in Amsterdam and whose collection of Old Master drawings was well-known among European collectors. He had studied law in Munich and worked at a Paris bank. He began to collect Old Master drawings in 1921 and by 1933 he had 2,671 works in his collection. With the proceeds from Gachet’s sale, Goering sought to expand his own art collection, mainly with tapestries and paintings.
Franz Koenigs
As soon as Koenigs received the paintings, he turned around and put them up for sale. He contacted Walter Feilchenfeldt, while he was still director of the Cassirer Gallery in Amsterdam. Outraged by Koenigs’ call, Feilchenfeldt said that he would not touch the paintings, which he considered to be stolen property. Despite objections, Koenings sent the pictures over, so that Siegfried Kramarsky, a German banker who lived in Holland, could view them. Kramarsky and Koenigs had had a business relationship since the 1920’s, and he hoped that Kramarsky would take the pictures.  The three paintings presumably arrived at the Cassirer gallery in May 1938.
Walter Feilchenfeldt

Siegfried Kramarsky was born in 1894, and started working at Lisser & Rosenkranz in 1917. With the help of Franz Lisser, his employer, he met and married Lola Popper, born into a middle class family. Her father was a coal broker. She was well-educated and well-grounded in art and literature. Soon after the wedding, Kramarsky and a colleague named Flörsheim bought the firm in 1922. In 1923, the couple moved to Amsterdam, and Koenings became a close family friend. Koenigs encouraged them to buy art, and since Lola preferred the Impressionists, she persuaded Siegfried to acquire them. 

On June 30, 1939 Theodor Fischer, a Swiss art dealer and auctioneer based in Lucerne, Switzerland, held a big sale of so-called “degenerate art” (modern works of art in violation of Nazi esthetics which had been confiscated and de-accessioned from German public collections) at the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne. By this time the Kramarskys had moved part of their collection from Amsterdam to New York via London. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was among them. Soon thereafter, with the threat of war coming everyday closer, the Kramarskys packed lightly, and left for the United States. Flörsheim, Kramarsky’s banking partner, remained in Amsterdam to run the bank. After the German invasion of Holland, Alois Miedl, Goering’s private banker and art broker in the Netherlands, acquired 74% of Lisser and Rosencranz. Several months after the Nazis took control of Holland, Krebs realized that Gachet had been taken to the US under new ownership.

With the advent of a global war erupting in Europe, the international center for modern art gradually shifted away from Paris to New York, a transition that Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, had almost single-handedly masterminded. French émigré dealers like Seligmann, Wildenstein, Rosenberg and others had resettled in New York, fleeing from the Nazi invasion of France. A plethora of modern artists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, had fled the European continent through Portugal, with the help of Barr’s Emergency Rescue Committee under the valiant leadership of Varian Fry. Scholars and academics followed the rush to safety across the Atlantic Ocean, among them Georg Swarzenski, who obtained work as a research fellow in sculpture and medieval art at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Once in the US, the provenance of Dr. Gachet, especially its pre-Nazi presence in the collection of the Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt, vanished from the official narrative of the painting’s ownership. George Wildenstein and Paul Rosenberg held van Gogh exhibitions in the early 1940s, which allowed the Portrait of Dr. Gachet to go on display more than once. In a show organized by Paul Rosenberg in January 1942, the provenance of Dr. Gachet mentioned all previous owners, except for the Städtische Galerie, from which it had been confiscated on Goering's orders.  From this point on the painting’s confiscation history was all but forgotten. When not on display it hung in the Kramarskys’ living room, in their apartment near Central Park. 

By the end of WWII, van Gogh had become a household name among the wealthy and cognoscenti in the United States. The Art Institute of Chicago held a van Gogh retrospective in 1949. Kramarsky lent the Portrait for the show. In 1951, a retrospective of his works took place at MoMA, followed by a van Gogh exhibit at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum.  By the late 1950s, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet was valued at more than $200,000, twice its value in 1940. 

On December 25, 1961 Siegfried Kramarsky died of lung cancer leaving his widow Lola in a difficult financial situation and forcing her to sell certain art works. Dr. Gachet was not one of these pieces. Paul Rosenberg had made it clear to her that should she decide to sell the Portrait he would gladly find her a buyer.

Speculation that the painting might soon come to market reached Frankfurt. Ernst Holzinger, the new director of the Städtische, wrote to Kramarsky expressing his interest in the painting and in the fact that should there be any inclination in selling the Portrait the museum would be interested. In 1970, the New York-based art dealer Eric Stiebel appraised the painting for a million and a half dollars.

In July 1984, the painting left the Central Park residence and was placed on a long-term loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remained until 1990. The Portrait stood at the heart of the Post-Impressionist collection together with other works by van Gogh. Still, after so many years, the painting’s provenance failed to include its confiscation history.

Meanwhile, new millionaires from the Far East and especially from Japan, were making a splash in the global art market with a ravenous appetite for expensive conversation pieces, trophies of sorts. The Japanese economy had turned into a bubble. The nouveaux riches busily acquired “status objects” considered to be masterpieces of Western Art. Picasso and van Gogh competed for the highest prices. Middlemen brokered these record-breaking transactions for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.

In 1984 Wynn Kramarsky had taken over the family’s financial affairs and claimed no emotional ties to the Portrait. He was well versed in the art world, with connections in the trade, and did not hesitate to denounce the hypocrisy of the art market. He recalled endless phone calls that he received from dealers and collectors expressing their interest in his collection, but mainly the Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Wynn was determined to sell it through Christie’s since his family had dealt with the auction house for many years.
Wynn Kramarsky
On February 1, 1990, Christopher Burge, the president of Christie’s, arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and picked up the painting himself. He had estimated the painting at between 40 and 50 million dollars. The reserve price for the Kramarsky family was a minimum of $40 million for the Portrait.   Burge thought that it would be the greatest van Gogh piece to come to the market, its value anchored in its story, encounters and associations. It could easily match Irises by van Gogh which had sold at Sotheby’s for a record $53.9 million.

The Christie’s catalogue for the Gachet sale came out in April 1990, six weeks before the sale, and there, too, the confiscation history had been omitted. On May 15, right before the sale, the reserve for Kramarsky dropped to $35 million. 700 people showed up for the sale. Being the most important lot the painting was placed one third of the way into that day’s public sale. The bidding opened at $20 million. The price kept increasing in increments of 1 million. Once the Portrait had surpassed the $40 million mark, the race was on between Hideto Kobayashi who was in the room and Maria Reinshagen who was bidding from Zurich by telephone. At $75 million, Burge sold the painting to Kobayashi. The painting had broken the previously set record by Irises and since the time Alice Ruben had purchased the portrait in 1897, the price had increased 23.000 times. Soon it was revealed that Kobayashi had purchased the painting on behalf of Ryoei Saito who owned Japan’s second largest paper company. Three weeks after the sale the Portrait left for Tokyo. 

According to Japanese tradition, all precious possessions had to be hidden away.  Saito spent a few hours admiring his new acquisition and left, giving directions to put the picture into a climate-controlled, high security room. The Portrait languished on a shelf out of sight, out of mind.  In order to pay for the painting Saito had leveraged his real estate holdings. In November 1993, he was arrested for bribing a government official, and while serving his time under house arrest he received many offers for Dr. Gachet but rebuffed them all.

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh remains out of reach and out of view.

The Struggle Continues

by Ori Z. Soltes

Which struggle? 

Not just that on behalf of claimants whose cultural property was seized by the Nazis more than half a century ago and resides in various museums and private collections. Not just that on behalf of the Hopi and Acoma Native Americans and other indigenous peoples whose communal spiritual property--and not merely individual or communal cultural property is being sold on the auction block as if it is merely a series of desirable baubles. Not just the struggle to get museums to educate themselves and their audiences about the provenance aspects of artworks and their histories. But the struggle to get certain museums, auction houses--and nation-states--to consider seriously the importance of moral and not just legal issues. The morality/ethics vs law distinction is fundamental to the distinction between law and justice and to principles that institutions like museums and auction houses consistently lay claim to as essential to what they are: the preservers of civilization (yes, this blog may be seen as a continuation of several previous blogs written by Marc Masurovsky or me). 

Three different bits of news underscore this nicely. A California judge ruled that the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, that holds within its collections a valuable 1897 Pissarro painting seized in 1939 by the Nazis from Lilly Cassirer, (in exchange for a few hundred dollars and a visa out of the country), need not return it to her great-children (their father, Paul, initiated the attempt for restitution when he found where the painting was, back in 2000) on legal grounds. Purely legal grounds: that the laws of Spain, in whose jurisdiction the issue must remain (although the painting moved thorough the American art world for 25 years during its post-war travels) do not mandate that the current owner need return it, since that owner, the museum, purchased the painting (from a Swiss-German baron) unaware of its provenance and thus that it was stolen property.

The judge did go out of his way to express hope that the museum would not allow the matter to end here, but would seek some extra-legal outcome, for moral reasons. So it is clear not only that laws are not always laws--had the judge pushed the case to be adjudicated within an American jurisdiction, the fact that the painting had been effectively stolen from Cassirer-- regardless of how many owners since that seizure by the Nazis had taken possession of it--may well have meant that the current owner doesn't own it. But in no case does anyone dispute the moral fact of the Cassirer ownership and entitlement. So: law wins, justice loses, morality loses. Civilization? a draw, I suppose. We need laws in order to be civilized, but when they permit immoral, unjust outcomes, then are they performing their intended job?

French law, like Spanish law, does not concern itself with the individual from whom an object was illicitly taken in the matter of property possession, just as long as the current owner paid for it--the presumption is that such a purchase was done in good faith and therefore the current possessor should not be penalized for not having bothered to inquire into the provenance of the property. And isn't it a heck of a coincidence that just a few days before the Cassirer verdict the French raised such a ruckus regarding the potential auctioning off of some royal historical artifacts: a 17th- century portrait of King Louis XIII, a portrait of the Duchess of Orleans, and an accounts book from the Chateau d'Amboise, a 15th-century royal residence in the Loire Valley? 
Fleur Pellerin, French Culture Minister
To be precise, the French government intervened to impose an export ban on these three items that descendants of France's former royal family (the House of Orleans) consigned to Sotheby's Paris offices. This was made possible--the State trumps the individual's rights with regard to his/her property--because France's cultural minister, Fleur Pellerin, declared the items as part of France's patrimony, its "national treasure." That designation gives the government legal ground for preventing these objects from going under the hammer and from leaving the country. 
Louis XIII in all his glory
This, of course, as readers of this blog will already now, came fast on the heels of the failure of the Conseil des Ventes--the government office that is tasked with overseeing all auctions and auction house activity in France--refused for the fourth time in barely a year to halt the auction of a number of objects sacred to the Hopi (Arizona) and Acoma (New Mexico) Native American tribes. These are all objects that, by definition can only have ended up in Paris auction houses, such as EVE and Drouot, by having been removed illicitly from these tribes and by being smuggled out of the United States--where the laws against dealing in the sacred and cultural property of Native Americans have become strict--and into France, which does not recognize the American laws as such.

Indeed the President of the Conseil de Ventes, each of these times when she has been confronted with a plea to remove sacred items from the auction block, has failed to do so on purely legal grounds: that the Hopi and Acoma are not entities entitled to legal standing within her jurisdiction (although they are, in the United states) and/or that those who represent the Hopi and the Acoma lack that standing for one technical reason or another. In other words, the moral issue is not one that even crossed her countenance; her ruling was shaped in pure legal terms.

So the sacred objects of Native Americans, essential elements of their identity, count for nothing in the French courts, although a historical account book--which is French, after all!--does. As Marc Masurovsky observed, in comparing the two French situations: "It would appear that sacred artifacts belonging to indigenous tribes the world over don't weigh much against royal artifacts." And while Evelio Acevido Carrero, managing director of the foundation that maintains the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum noted gleefully how "very satisfying" it is to have an American court recognize the ownership rights of a Spanish museum--noted without a scintilla of irony--there is some other kind of irony in the tone of dismissal used by the French CVV toward both American law and American artifacts.

What all three cases have in common (among other things) is the question of where justice and morality fit into these legal questions. Los Angeles Judge John F. Walter invoked morality at the end of his decision, expressing hope that the museum would "do the right thing," even as he felt obliged to ignore "the right thing" in his decision, in the interests of the law; the French court and auction houses and the Spanish museum have both used the law in order to ignore justice and morality--have thus far made it clear that law is the armor in which they shall wrap themselves to protect themselves from justice and morality.

And then--lest we forget!--the Fred Jones, Jr, Museum, at the University of Oklahoma, continues to hang on desperately to “The Shepherdess” by Camille Pissarro that doesn't legally or morally belong to it, against the claim of Leone Meyer, a French woman, from whose father the Nazis stole it--thanks to legal technicalities having to do with the jurisdiction in which the case might be decided--in spite of the moral outrage of nearly everyone in the State of Oklahoma.

It would be nice if law, justice and morality could coincide in these cases that are linked by the lack of that coincidence. It's not that justice is blind, it's that too often many legal practitioners are blind to justice. So the struggle for moral outcomes goes on in the darkness.