Thursday 20 January 2011

Rubens Causes More Controversy as Artwork Owned by A Victim of the Nazis to Remain in Britain

Following on from my earlier post, it seems that Rubens was causing a stir before Christmas too.

His work entitled The Coronation of the Virgin, an oil sketch measuring 46cm x 61.4cm, was painted in or around 1613. While the painting is one of Rubens's lesser known works, it is considered important as it is part of a group of oil sketches by the German-born artist made in preparation for a series of larger paintings that decorated the ceiling of a Jesuit church in Antwerp destroyed by fire in the 18th century.

15 December 2010, after dispute between the Courtauld Institute and the family of its original owner, Parliament's Spoliation Advisory Panel ruled in favour of Courtauld Institute and as a result the historically important painting of the Virgin Mary stay in Britain. The full report of the Panel can be found here. Last year another painting formerly owned by the Jewish banker, Hans Makart's The Death of Pappenheim, was returned to the same family by a decision of Vienna Municipal Council.

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, chaired by Sir David Hirst, was established in February 2000 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as an advisory non-departmental public body (NDPB) to help resolve claims for cultural property looted during the Nazi era. On 12 April 2010 the Panel was dissolved as an advisory NDPB and reconstituted as a group of expert advisers which continues under the name 'Spoliation Advisory Panel'. Sir David Hirst continues to be chairman, the Panel's membership remains as before and the Panel remains the advisory body designated by the Secretary of State under Section 3 of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009.

The Panel resolves claims from people, or their heirs, who lost property during the Nazi era, which is now held in UK national collections. The Panel is appointed by the Secretary of State. It considers both legal and non-legal obligations, such as the moral strength of the claimant’s case, and whether any moral obligation rests on the holding institution.

The painting came to Britain after it was acquired at auction at Sotheby's by a noted collector, Count Antoine Seilern, who bequeathed it to the Courtauld Institute in 1978. The painting’s original owner was Jewish Banker Herbert Gutmann, the Director of the Dresdner bank until 1931 and son its founder. Gutmann himself was a collector of Islamic, European and decorative arts. After his father died he was appointed the director of Dresdner Bank until 1931 when he stepped down in the wake of the German banking crisis. Having sold his art collection in Berlin in April 1934, he fled Nazi Germany for the UK in October 1936. He died here six years later. His brother and his wife, who remained in Germany, were murdered by the Nazis. Gutmann's remaining assets were seized by the Nazis in 1940.

Gutmann, described by a propaganda poster as a "profiteer and a Jewish manipulator" was feared by Hitler as someone, along with his contemporaries, who might support a coup against him. Indeed in 1934, together with other members of centrist and right-wing parties, several of Gutmann's contemporaries were murdered on the orders of Hitler. Gutmann’s descendants maintained that he was forced to sell the painting in haste before the Nazis seized the collection and because he was forced to flee Nazi Germany and as such the Courtauld was obliged to return the work.

Central to the row over ownership was whether Gutmann had been forced to sell the painting because of antisemitism. The panel heard evidence that Dresdner Bank became "Nazified" and was encouraged to persecute Jewish employees. The panel report notes: "While there is no documentary record of Gutmann having owed any money to the Dresdner Bank before 1933, documents start recording money owed by Gutmann from this point onwards, beginning with a debt, reported in July 1933, of 200,000 reichsmarks owed to a Dresdner Bank share syndicate set up in 1927, in which Gutmann was a participant."

The panel also heard Gutmann’s wealth was eroded after unsuccessful investments in Egyptian cotton and that Gutmann sold his art collection as a “cold financial calculation” because of these financial losses, rather than due to anti-Semitism. The panel agreed with his and saw no grounds for criticism of the Courtauld. In their final conclusion considered the moral strength of the Claimants’ case insufficient to warrant a recommendation that The Coronation of the Virgin should be transferred to them or that an ex gratia payment should be made to them.

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