Comment: Art got Owned (by the Nazis?!)

Comment: Art got Owned (by the Nazis?!)

War looting is nothing new. Throughout history armies have raided lands, homes and artwork to proudly display their victories back in their homeland and supplement their often meagre income. But in its displacement, how much artwork finds its way back to its rightful owner? Tara Parmar discusses the Nazi's art trove, Rockefeller Rothko and art ownership today...

Some artefacts have now become so engrained in their new home that their place of origin becomes unknown to us. The Nefertiti bust, currently in the Neue museum, Berlin, is just one example. Though founded by the German archaeological team, led by Ludwig Borchardt, it was not declared when taken back to Berlin, and served as quite the shock to Egyptian authorities when it was unveiled in Berlin in 1924. Although they were wronged, Egypt even offered an exchange to which Hitler declined.  

Nefertiti's Bust

Nefertiti's Bust

And that’s not the only artwork Hitler had a hand in misplacing. World War II saw some of the biggest war looting ever seen, much of which is still finding its way back to its rightful owners.  At the time, new laws allowed him to take the private property of not only Jewish households but also the galleries and museums of Germany and occupied countries.

However it wasn’t only the Nazi regime that saw benefits of stolen artwork. In recent years the case of the Munich art trove brought to light the benefits of being an art dealer for the Nazi’s.  The trove discovered in 2012, saw over 1,500 artworks revealed from Picasso and Otto Dix to Renoir. 

Hildebrand Gurlitt guides a tour through the Sao Paulo exhibition in 1954.

Hildebrand Gurlitt guides a tour through the Sao Paulo exhibition in 1954.

The vast collection was acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of only four art dealers allowed to trade internationally during the war; a position of which he abused as he frequently made profit from art sales made under duress. He even went to the extent of removing gallery stamps and labels to hide the provenance of the artwork.

It is because of looting, and a series of private sales, that restitution cases are now made more difficult for those families looking to regain ownership of what is left from their life before the war. Those families are fighting for the sentimental value; for them, memories and family histories have become part of the paintwork, not merely for a financial gain.  

The collection was ultimately left to the Bern Museum, Switzerland. Which demonstrates the responsibility that also comes with the provenance of an artwork. Since after the publicity of the collection, which has largely been tainted as Nazi looted, this now also reflects on the museums reputation. However, to date only 5 works of the 1,500 have been confirmed as looted since a portion of the works had already existed in the Gurlitt collection prior to the war.   

Rothko's 'White Centre', with the price tag of $72m.

Rothko's 'White Centre', with the price tag of $72m.

Though at times it can have a negative effect, the provenance of a work can sometimes be the leading sales point of an artwork; as is the case with Rothko’s ‘White Centre’, now commonly known as the ‘Rockefeller Rothko’ in art circles. The visual value of the artwork slowly fades to an afterthought as the reputation of the Rockefeller’s soon overshadowed the work, as much as its price tag of $72 Million did.

Ownership is not just changed through looting, but also through sales. We’re fortunate that the majority of private buys usually display the work publicly, but there are the few who keep worldly cultural objects hidden away for their own viewing pleasure. 

The Rockefeller Rothko is one of those cases along with Monet’s Water Lily Pond, selling for over $80 million. These are just one of the many cases where the artwork was never to be seen in public again since its auction. Privately kept in such a way, it’s difficult to gauge whether these buyers are truly buying for love or for status? Regardless of the reason why they display the work privately, it seems a shame that their ownership keeps the world from enjoying a masterpiece.

The fortunate thing about artwork finding a new home, is that it opens itself up to a new world of appreciation. As the owner changes, whether it’s through war time looting or auctions, a new story embeds itself into the artwork that cannot be changed. 

These might not be visible changes but cultural objects can become tainted by who they are associated with by no fault of their own; the responsibility therefore falls to us to protect our history of people, objects, and thoughts that we’re all built upon.

 

 

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