Stolen Histories

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12, Photography by Len Rubenstein

Stolen Histories

In July 1937, up a staircase inside the Archaeological Institute in Munich, Germany, 10 dark, narrow rooms teemed with a discordant arrangement of paintings, sculptures, and prints. Many of the paintings had been taken out of their frames; some hung unevenly from cords. Scrawled across the walls and over the canvases were phrases like "Nature as seen by sick minds," "Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule," and "Deliberate sabotage of national defense." One hundred and twelve artists were represented, primarily German, including Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky. But do not be fooled: this was no art-lover's dream.

It was the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Just a few days prior, Adolf Hitler had delivered an acrimonious speech declaring "merciless war" on cultural disintegration, and he considered Expressionist art a leading agent of decay. The Nazis confiscated offending artworks from German museums, taking 16,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books whose content was deemed vile to the nation or thought to insult German patriotism. Over 600 pieces were selected for the Degenerate Art Exhibition, which was designed to inspire horror and revulsion at the perversity of the works. The exhibit toured Germany and Austria until 1941, and some 2 million people experienced its derisive agenda.

Thousands of the stolen pieces not shown in the exhibition—many by avant-garde European artists such as van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse—were sold at an auction in Switzerland in 1939 to generate funds for the Reich. The remaining 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 drawings, watercolors, and graphics were destroyed in a bonfire in 1939.

Mysterious Details

In the Modern European section of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), there is a haunting sculpture of a man's head. Spotlighted inside a large glass case, the head turns awkwardly to the right, an open mouth revealing white teeth. Cerulean eyes sink deep in their sockets; faded tempera reds, blues, and yellows scream across the face and hair; and the expression is contorted with suffering and fear. The piece is Oskar Kokoschka's 1909 "Self-Portrait as a Warrior." Though this bust was not featured in the Degenerate Art Exhibition, other Kokoschka works were, and he indisputably belonged to Hitler's category of "degenerate" artists.

Standing next to the unfired clay sculpture is Victoria Reed '96, or "Torie," as she invites people to call her. "This bust is the very poster child for the kind of art that the Nazi regime deemed unacceptable," she says. "According to legend, when it was exhibited, people made fun of it and stuffed chocolates into the mouth." In her role as the curator for provenance at the MFA, Reed is paid to know the mysterious details of the museum's current pieces. She researches and documents the provenance—the history of ownership—of the MFA's collection, and much of her work focuses on art that could have been subject to Nazi-era looting or theft.

When Reed first joined the staff of the MFA in 2003, the Kokoschka bust quickly fixed her attention. In 1909, it had been in the collection of Adolf Loos, a well-known Viennese architect and private art collector. In 1960, it had been purchased from a New York art gallery. What happened in those intervening 51 years? Reed knew that many of Kokoschka's pieces changed hands illegally during the Nazi era, and she promptly moved the bust to a prioritized list of works.

She wasn't as worried about another Kokoschka piece in the MFA's collection: "Two Nudes (The Lovers)," an evocative and enormous self-portrait of himself and Alma Mahler (widow of the composer Gustav Mahler), which he created in 1913. Unlike the bust, this oil painting did not have any large or problematic gaps in its history.

But it was the painting, not the bust, which became the center of a three-year legal battle between the MFA and a woman who claimed it rightfully belonged to her. Setting the record straight would take more than 18 months of research for Reed, the results of which would incite a fury of backlash from some who followed the case.

Ghosts of the Past

In 1998, representatives from 44 nations gathered in Washington, DC, to discuss the need to identify works of art that might have been the subject of looting, forced sale, or other improper transfer during the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945. The Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets established, among other principles, that art stolen and not returned to its rightful owner should be restituted, and that researchers should have access to relevant records and archives from museums' collections.

Though the field of provenance research didn't even exist when Reed was at Sarah Lawrence, it has become essential. In addition to researching the MFA's current collection, she also examines the history of pieces on the museum's shopping list. Much of her work can be described as risk assessment. Beyond the ethical issues at stake, museums ultimately don't want the bad press or financial burden of someone claiming that a work of art rightfully belongs to them.

Good title is broken as soon as a piece is stolen, regardless of how many hands it may legally change after the initial theft. In 2006, the MFA returned to Italy 13 antiquities that had either been illegally trafficked or excavated from the country. Based on Reed's findings, the museum has also canceled intentions to purchase various items, and reached financial settlements when a piece of art was determined to legally belong to someone else.

Reed's most well-known case was resolved in 2011, when the MFA announced that it would pay restitution to the heir of Walter Westfeld, a Jewish art dealer who died in a Nazi death camp, in order to keep an oil painting by 17th-century Dutch painter Eglon van der Neer, "Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior,'' on its walls. Reed's research indicated that prior to the MFA's purchase of the painting in 1941, Westfeld either disposed of it or was forced to sell it under duress due to racial persecution. The entire research process took eight years and defined the MFA as an ethical leader in the provenance field. In a 2011 profile the Boston Globe wrote about Reed and her work, writer Geoff Edgers noted, "The finding would give the museum a chance to show the world that it cared deeply about righting the wrongs of the past, when swashbuckling curators acquired paintings and sculptures without doing in-depth research on whether they had been stolen."

So when the museum received a call in 2007 from the lawyers of the sole surviving heir of Austrian-Jewish art collector Oskar Reichel, claiming Kokoschka's "Two Nudes (The Lovers)" had been sold under duress to the Nazis in 1939, the museum took the claim seriously, and Reed devoted her time exclusively to the history of the painting.

Evidence Uncovered

Pull quoteMost of Reed's work is entirely contingent on her research skills (which she says began to take shape in her conference projects at Sarah Lawrence and were fine-tuned while earning her PhD in art history at Rutgers). "There's no one box to check off," she says. "Each object has a different life story." According to her research in this case, Kokoschka sold his painting around 1914–15 to Reichel, who sold it in 1939 to another Jew and fellow Viennese art dealer named Otto Kallir. "The questions we're asking," Reed says, "are, Would this sale have taken place if the Nazis had not been in power? Was this something that this person would have wanted to sell anyway? Did they have a choice about whom to sell it to, or was there a literal or metaphorical gun to their head? And then did they receive proceeds from that work of art?"

Kallir later brought the paintings to the United States and sent money for them to Reichel's two sons, who were living in South America and the United States. Reed (and the MFA) concluded that the men had worked out some sort of handshake deal: Reichel didn't get money in Austria—probably because he wouldn't have been able to do anything with it as a Jew at the time—and arranged payment for the paintings to go to those family members who had already left Europe. Simply stated, Reed found that Reichel and Kallir's 1939 transaction was valid. (The painting was later sold between galleries, and eventually purchased by a private collector who bequeathed it to the MFA in 1973.)

After presenting their research, private negotiations with Reichel's heir proved fruitless, and the MFA became the plaintiff in a legal case arguing for its rightful ownership of the painting. In May 2009, a Massachusetts district court ruled in the MFA's favor, and in October of the following year, the US Court of Appeals upheld that decision. But not everyone was happy about it. Raymond Dowd, a New York lawyer who has filed lawsuits over works that he maintains were taken by the Nazis, was at the forefront of those who disagreed with the court's ruling, as well as the MFA's decision to prosecute such a case at all. On his Web site, he called Reed's job title "a synonym for a launderer of stolen artworks.''

The Glare of the Spotlight

Because Reed is the first and only endowed curator of provenance at an American museum (a private donor funds her position), she is able to spend 100 percent of her time on provenance research, which is a rarity in the museum world. She is the first to admit that despite this, there still isn't enough time to discover everything one could about a piece of art.

But she knows she made a solid case for Kokoschka's "Two Nudes (The Lovers)," and still finds the backlash to be incredibly frustrating. "From my perspective— the perspective of the person who did the research and spent more than a year and a half working on nothing except this painting—shouldn't we at least acknowledge the facts of the case?"

But beyond this, Reed won't comment on the outcome of the case or the vitriol directed at her. "I recognize there are those who feel that museums should not be plaintiffs in these cases," she says, shrugging her shoulders with what one suspects might be false diplomacy. "But in terms of the outcome of this case in particular, and whether it was rightly decided in view of the facts, I cannot say and should not hazard a guess." The ultimate outcome of the case remains, professionally at least, none of her business. But the imbroglio reinforced an important fact about her position: her job is simply to do nuanced research and present her findings to her boss, MFA Deputy Director Katherine Getchell. What happens next is out of her hands.

Serious Implications

Learning to walk away from her work and adjust to the sometimes harsh glare of the spotlight from the Kokoschka case and even her profile in the Boston Globe has been one of the recent challenges of a career Reed never anticipated having. She grew up in Portland, Maine, and as a kid she would play on a dirt road near her house, going home when the 5 o'clock whistle blew. Despite her considerable workload, Reed is still a person who craves calm mental space and balance. She attends a Unitarian church in Boston and runs five times a week in the thick and quiet woods of Jamaica Plain, where she lives.

"This is definitely not something I ever planned to do," Reed says. "What I work on is so serious, and if I mess up, it's a big deal. If you're leading a studio art class for preschoolers—" she pauses and squints, as though searching for a different example, or to make sure she's not denigrating the importance of preschool teachers—"the implications are different," she says finally. "But I like doing the research, I like being behind the scenes, I like putting pieces together, and I like cleaning up records. I like making sure things are as complete as they can be."

Reed's commitment to her work, however, obviously goes beyond good organizational skills and enjoying learning new things. Her father was an artist who worked as a freelance photographer for Life magazine in the 1950s and later made jewelry and sculptures, and Reed remembers growing up surrounded by weighty coffee-table books about artists and their work. Her academic drive and attraction to art history were immediately noticed by David Bernstein, her don at Sarah Lawrence, after she transferred from Brown her sophomore year. Reed took three courses with Bernstein, and in one evaluation he wrote that she "showed in all her work the instincts and skills of a true historian," one of those instincts being a "critical, but empathetic, mind."

Case Closed

Click image to view largerReed gives a number of lectures each year at other museums, colleges and universities, and the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums, and is often invited to discuss the Westfeld case. But when asked what she had enjoyed about working on the case, she frowns slightly. "That's a difficult choice of words because you're studying the fate of someone in the Holocaust," she says carefully. "I went to Düsseldorf, looking through files of archival materials from Nazi Germany for this case, so I can't say in that sense that it was 'great.' But when I started, nobody knew anything about Walter Westfeld … this was uncharted territory. So to put together the pieces of his life story in some small way was very rewarding."

Kokoschka's bust, unlike his now-infamous painting, ended up with a clean bill of provenance health. Reed assiduously closed the gaps in its ownership history by contacting a Kokoschka expert in Vienna, who eventually found a letter written in 1956 by a woman who owned the bust; after fleeing Austria in 1937 for the United States, she was trying to sell the sculpture to art dealers. When she returned to Europe after the war, she left it in Manhattan with friends. Though it remains unclear to whom she eventually sold the bust, Reed's research narrowed the provenance gap from 51 years to four.

Resolving the mysteries of these cases affords a unique pleasure, but such deep thinking about the crimes of art history does have a downside, as Reed recently discovered. She was on vacation in St. Petersburg, and while visiting museums she realized that she can no longer appreciate a piece of art at face value. "They had all of this trophy art that the Russians brought back from Germany at the end of World War II," Reed says, calmly but also with a hint of irritation. "I can't look at those paintings without thinking about where they came from." It's an occupational hazard, we suppose. But art lovers everywhere should be glad that at the MFA, Victoria Reed is on the case.