Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boston's Musuem of Fine Arts: A Horrible Comparison

[Link added 10:21 a.m.; repaired 12:16 p.m.]

Geoff Edgers, writing in The Boston Globe, reports that Boston
's Museum of Fine Arts [MFA] and an Australian woman are in court fighting over a painting which belonged to her family. The painting was sold by the woman's uncle in Vienna in 1939 and eventually was acquired by the museum.


The woman claims it was sold under duress. The MFA, which apparently has done extensive research on this, disputes that and says it was a normal transaction.

But here's what caught my attention in The Boston Globe article. The Deputy Director of the Museum, Katherine Getchell, made the following absurd statement when she claimed that the sale of the picture was a matter of business as usual:

"Would you also say that people who sold things [during] the Depression, yes, they sold them under duress?" she said. "Yes, if somebody sells their house now because they can't meet their high mortgage payment, is that a forced sale of a house? I think it's very dangerous to make the supposition that everything that happened during a period of time was forced." [The Boston Globe ]

I have no idea of the details of the sale, but let's reflect on the situation in Vienna in 1939. The Nazis had arrived the previous year. The Austrians had greeted them enthusiastically. Jews were treated with greater brutality than in Germany.

Jews were forced to use toothbrushes to clean anti-Nazi slogans that had been painted on the street. There are chilling pictures showing terrified people on their hands and knees doing such cleaning while gleeful Austrians stand and cheer. In some of these pictures is that it is young kids who are forcing the Jews to do this. Hundreds of Jews committed suicide.

Eichmann had been dispatched to Vienna to create a “conveyor belt” [his term] to move Jews out. In a short time 128,000 Jews would leave.

Jews were well aware of the pressure to get out. The situation was working so efficiently that Eichmann forced the leaders of the Berlin Jewish community to come to Vienna to see how efficiently the Jews were being forced to move out of the Reich.

Remember, this was before the Germans had settled on a plan to murder the Jews and were “just” trying to get them to emigrate. Their objective was to have them leave quickly and with no material goods. Their possessions would all fall into German hands. In short they were to be pauperized.

Sometimes the sale of goods was to other Jews. Not everything was openly confiscated by the Germans. Rest assured, it ultimately all fell into the hands of German governmental agencies or well placed Nazis.

Every memoir, history book, and biography talks of the terror under which Austrian Jews lived during those days. They knew get out or eventually end up in concentration camps.

To compare this to someone selling their house during the depression is absurd. It would be akin to saying that "not every young Black slave girl who had sexual relations with her master or a member of his family was forced into it. Some may truly have been in love." This was a relationship of the all powerful to the powerless. To see it as anything else is just plain stupid or, more properly put, obtuse and could only be made by someone who does not understand the nature of slavery.

So too with the situation of Jews in Vienna. Jews were seeking every which way to get out. For Jews nothing that happened in Vienna at the time was “normal.”

I would suggest that MFA Deputy Director Getchell learn a bit more about history before she makes any more such far fetched, if not, absurd analogies.

12 comments:

Matt said...

Your links are clipped. Here's the full address for the Boston Globe article: http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2008/01/24/mfa_sues_to_bolster_claim_to_disputed_1913_painting/

Ludovic said...

"Their possessions would all fall into German hands"

That painting must be an exception, as, according to the Boston Globe, it remained a jewish property until it was sold to an American, in New York in 1945. That painting never fell into German hands.

FAIIRPLAY said...

Deb; There's more to this than what was reported, see http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2008/01/24/mfa_sues_to_bolster_claim_to_disputed_1913_painting/

[quote from] Drawing upon months of research by Victoria Reed, curatorial research fellow for provenance, the museum laid out an ownership history for [the disputed painting] "Two Nudes" that it felt made clear the work was sold by choice, not under pressure by the Nazis. The 1939 sale was described by the MFA as voluntary and the museum stated that it was made to another Jew, Viennese art dealer Otto Kallir.
"The painting was never confiscated by the Nazis, was never sold by force as a result of Nazi persecution, and was not otherwise taken from [the owner] Dr. Reichel," the MFA complaint stated. Ori Soltes, cofounder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project in Washington, D.C., said he was impressed by the museum's research. "It strikes me the MFA's case has a lot of merit," Soltes said. But Seger-Thomschitz's lawyers said they intend to respond to the MFA's lawsuit.

"We disagree with them in the most important part of this, which is that there was immense persecution of this family that compelled them to sell this painting," Byrne said yesterday, after reviewing the suit. Upon the 1939 sale, the painting and four other Kokoschka works were sent to Paris, where Kallir [the purchaser] had moved. In 1945, he sold the painting to another dealer in New York for $1,500. It was purchased by Sarah Blodgett in the late 1940s. She gave the painting to the MFA Boston, when she died in 1972.

* The Boston Fine Arts Museum does have a lot of Jewish supporters including the Kresge Foundation [K Mart] and Leonard A Lauder [ Estee Lauders son] its my view Leonard Lauder should be asked to referee and arbitrate this dispute informally.

* Katherine Getchell [age then 24] [age now 38]was appointed in 1994, she has worked with a lot of Jewish doners and patrons, and her bona-fides are impeccable.

* The legal point is can this heir claim that the sale was forced 'by the oppressive climate of the times and does this constitute grounds for recission.' The sale to another Jewish Art dealer [was he Jewish needs to be proved] would certainly damage her case in Court.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

1. Nothing that Jews did in Vienna in 1939 was NOT under pressure from the Nazis. These people were under siege . No ifs ands or buts about it.

2. It means nothing that it was sold to another Jew. In fact, in certain cases Eichmann dictated that Jews were to deal with certain other Jews in arranging these matters. Ultimately virtually all the proceeds went to the Nazis.

3. What the heck does the fact that MFA has Jewish donors [what major museum in the US doesn't?] have to do with anything?

4. What's the relevance of the fact that Getchell has worked with Jewish donors have to do with anything? Has anyone accused her of anything other than making really stupid historical analogies?

I really don't understand why you even raise this.

Ludovic said...

"The Austrians had greeted them enthusiastically"

Did they greet them as nazis, applauding to every tenet of the nazi ideology, or as nationalists who unified German speaking people under the same state ?

To the contrary of the Versailles Treaty ("she [Germany] agrees that this [Austria's] independence shall be inalienable, except with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations"), Secretary of State Lansing's Twenty-Nine Points included "Incorporation of [Austrian] Archduchy in the Imperial German Confederation".

Quoted by Alfred D. Low, "The Anschluss Movement, 1918-1919", American Philosophical
Society, 1974, p.51
http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA51&lpg=PA48&sig=S_NAyf9gDatGTFbbNqzFkxgDSXA&id=1eZkToUVYisC&ots=wtWT8YQCss&output=html

Deborah Lipstadt said...

They greeted the Nazis with tremendous enthusiasm. Every description from the time speaks of that. See my Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945.

Also I am not sure what a book about the Anschluss Movement 1918-1919 has to do with this issue.

FAIIRPLAY said...

The news article you quoted implied that this painting was sold under duress, presumably to a Nazis. At least thats the impression that I got. Learning that it was sold privatly to a 'Jewish Art dealer' sort of alters the impression created. I understand this dealer bought 4 pictures from this family. This dealer then goes [or flees] to Paris and sells the painting at arms length to a good-faith buyer.

The Museum spokeperson Ms K Getchell appears to be a well educated, alert and responsible person, I mentioned this side of her character to add balance to the remarks attributed to her. For the same reason I hinted that Boston Art Museum are well aware that on occasions like this they must be seen to be fair to all and to do justice.

My gut feeling is in 1939 this family wanted to leave Vienna for Political reasons e.g.the Nazis, who had not revealed their true colours or intentions at that time. This family probably sold household goods to others, the point being 'they invited this dealer to their home and a deal was struck *with him*'. So it cannot be swept to one side. If it was a group of Nazis who had burst into their home and made gun point threats then restitution would be expected. A line needs to be drawn somewhere. On this issue I am siding with the Museum, and point out that Mr Ori Soltes, cofounder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project in Washington, D.C., said [Quote] "he was impressed by the museum's research" and "It strikes me the MFA's Museum case has a lot of merit," Soltes said.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

As I said at the outset: i have not done the research so i do not know the details [i am about to read the court filings].

However, one thing is crystal clear. In 1939 life for Jews was NOT normal: they had been terrorized, were being driven to emigrate [128,00 in a little over a year]; their synagogues and buildings had been burned down,; homs invaded; and Eichmann was a looming presence in Vienna.

He had ONE mission. Rid the place of Jews. Nobody was engaging in normal economic transactions at that time if they were Jewish and were in Austria.

Read Michael Gerson's column in today's Washington Post to get a sense of what it was like for small children, most less for adults.
[http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/25/AR2008032502408.html?sub=AR

Deborah Lipstadt said...

"My gut feeling is in 1939 this family wanted to leave Vienna for Political reasons e.g.the Nazis, who had not revealed their true colours or intentions at that time..."

There is a stark difference between gut feelings and history. The Nazis revealed their true feelings -- Jews get out of Austria -- within a few days of their arrival.

People who did not get out were being arrested. Leaders of the community were often jailed. When they met with Eichmann they would be humiliated [slapped, forced to stand for hours, told to take their hands out of their pockets, terrorized]....

Facts are a troublesome thing... they get in the way of suppositions.

Remember, I do not know the exact circumstances of the sale of the paintings. I do know the context of this time in Vienna.

It was a horrifying time and place to be a Jew.

Read something on it.

FAIIRPLAY said...

A few words of caution:

The art dealer concerned 'Otto Kallir' was the subject of a newspaper article which claimed that he dealt with both Hitler and Mussolini. See: Dealer With the Devil | The New York Observer. [brief extract] In the spring of 1938, Kallir, then known as Otto Nierenstein and one of Vienna’s most prominent Jewish art dealers, found himself arranging the sale of ..... Within weeks, Kallir fled from Vienna to live in Lucerne and Paris before arriving in New York on August 22, 1939, aboard the S.S. Ile De France with his wife and two children. The Hitler sale seemed to be buried behind him. A whispering campaign resulted in a blind item published in the Washington Daily News on November 28, 1941, claiming Kallir was an “agent for Hitler and Mussolini”. [a totally unproven claim and strongly disputed by his family]

Jane Kallir, Otto grandaughter, co-directs the oldest gallery concentrating on German and Austrian Expressionist art in the United States and is a well-known expert in this field. Her personal relationship to the Vienna of the early 1900s also becomes clear through one of the works she is lending to WCMA’s upcoming show. This work, the rare, hand-written memoir chronicling Hitler’s time in Vienna, [title] How I Met Adolf Hitler by Reinhold Hanisch, was composed at the suggestion of her grandfather, Otto Kallir. When art dealer Otto Kallir realized in 1933 that Hanisch, a handyman, had known Hitler when they lived in a Viennese men’s hostel together in 1909, he encouraged Hanisch to write down his recollections. Otto Kallir hid the manuscript after the German invasion of Austria in 1938, and this is the first time it has been shown in a museum.

[1] http://www.observer.com/2007/dealer-devil
[2 http://www.wcma.org/press/02/02kallir.shtml

Ludovic said...

"Also I am not sure what a book about the Anschluss Movement 1918-1919 has to do with this issue."

It has nothing to do with the question "How?" but it might have something to do with the question "Why?". At least since Thucydides, history interests itself not only in the depiction of events but also in their underlying causes.

FAIIRPLAY said...

Retraction:

My earlier post on the Art dealer Otto Kallir See: Dealer "With the Devil" [taken from The New York Observer]was both unfair and inaccurate; the New York Observer headline should have stated: *THE UNWILLING* Dealer with the Devil".

For those interested may I reccommend reading:
. [1] http://64.233.183.104/search?q=cache:03whgRyuccEJ:www.adele.at/Report_Prof__Jonathan_Petropou/Petropoulos.pdf+Bruno+Grimschitz,+a+Nazi+curator+at+the+Austrian+Gallery&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=uk

[2] http://64.233.183.104/search?q=cache:HSCLWaFZwS4J:www.belvedere.at/pdf/vortrag_mayer_en06.pdf+Bruno+Grimschitz,+Nazi+curator+Austrian+Gallery&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=4&gl=uk

The Republic of Austria has committed itself to ascertain all objects that had come into the possession of the Federal Museums by unjust means and to return or restitute them to the rightful owners or their heirs. In September 2006, the Museums database listed 659 paintings and sculptures that are ranked as “suspicious”, meaning "stolen".
From this report it appears that even today many German and Austrian State Art Galleries should sport a Swastika on the roof and a portrait of Hitler in its foyer.