Marking International Provenance Research Day


Max Liebermann (1847—1935), Mother and Child, around 1917, Museum Wiesbaden. Photo: Museum Wiesbaden

"An important goal of provenance research into Holocaust-era assets is to reconstruct every change of ownership of a particular work of art during the period of Nazi rule (1933—1945) and trace an unbroken ‘chain of custody’ whenever possible." (Miriam Merz)

Researching the provenance of a non-accessioned drawing found in the storerooms at Museum Wiesbaden

In this video provenance researcher Miriam Merz presents a work whose ownership from 1933—45 is still unclear: Max Liebermann's Mother and Child.

An important goal of provenance research into Holocaust-era assets is to reconstruct every change of ownership of a particular work of art during the period of Nazi rule (1933—1945) and trace an unbroken ‘chain of custody’ whenever possible. Sometimes missing documentation means that we cannot be completely certain that an object acquired by the museum during the Nazi period was not expropriated from its previous owners as a means of political persecution. Even in cases with missing documentation, however, provenance research can contribute important facts and details about the history of particular works or the collection as a whole, as the following example of the drawing ‘Mother and Child’ by Max Liebermann (1847–1935) demonstrates. The drawing shows a mother seated on a tree-trunk cradling an infant in her arms. Behind her is a farmer tilling a field with an ox-drawn plough, with a broad landscape in the distance. The drawing is signed at the bottom left: ‘M. Liebermann’. When it entered the museum collection in 1980, as a gift from Rose and Friedrich Klein, the drawing was not immediately catalogued, which meant that its attribution, year of origin, and technique were not checked and confirmed. In determining its provenance today, the first thing we did was consult the Max Liebermann Archive, which confirmed that the work was indeed by Liebermann and that it dated from the year 1917. Analysis by Museum Wiesbaden’s paper conservator showed that the artist had used black chalk on wove paper for his drawing. An initial clue to the provenance of the work was the inscription on the original mount: ‘Frau M. Diez-Dührkoop … M. Liebermann, 21.9.1917’. It was, in fact, a dedication from the painter to the famous German photographer Minya Diez-Dührkoop (1873—1929).

Many modern artists had themselves photographed by this Hamburg-based photographer, including, on several occasions, Max Liebermann. Surviving letters from the artist show that he presented Minya Diez-Dührkoop with the drawing as a gift. As a thank-you for photographs she had taken in July 1917, he invited her to choose a drawing from his studio in Berlin. Minya Diez-Dührkoop’s influence extended well beyond the city of Hamburg. She was a passive member of the artists’ group Die Brücke from 1910, and in 1919 became one of the founder members of the professional Association of German Photographers (Gesellschaft Deutscher Lichtbildner or GDL). A key actor in the Hamburg art scene, she was also a collector of contemporary art. Interestingly, Minya Diez-Dührkoop’s surviving portrait photography shows that the mother-and-child theme played a special role in her work. Presumably, that is why she chose this particular image of a nursing mother.

The torn edge at the left side of the paper shows that the drawing was taken from one of Max Liebermann’s sketchbooks. It was probably made in 1917, which means that the artist was re-visiting a motif that had featured in some of his own earlier works. For example, a nursing mother and a farmer at his plough can be seen in a sketch he made for a portrait of Spring, part of a cycle of paintings of the seasons that he produced in 1898 for the interior of the town hall of Altona (now part of Hamburg). So far it has not been possible to confirm whether the drawing was still in the photographer’s possession at the point of her death in 1929. Nor do we know when Rose and Friedrich Klein acquired it. Remarkably, however, the drawing has been accompanied by its original mount ever since 1917 — without the dedication from Max Liebermann, this part of its provenance history could not have been told.

The bottom line:
In order to clarify the provenance of an artwork, researchers need a starting point, whether that be written sources — purchase documentation, correspondence, etc. — or clues like this dedication. The more well-known an artist is, the greater the chances are that each work by them has already been documented in scholarly literature. In Max Liebermann’s case, there is a multi-volume catalogue raisonné of his paintings and a critical edition of his letters, both of which are important secondary sources for provenance research. Even though research has not yet been able to conclusively trace the ownership of the drawing for the years 1933—1945, it has, nevertheless, unearthed valuable facts and details of its history.

"Despite intensive efforts, it has not so far been possible to find the original owner of the painting and initiate the legal process of rectifying the injustice perpetrated." (Dr. Peter Forster)

Roelant Savery’s "Forest Landscape with Animals Fighting"

Curator Dr. Peter Forster takes a look at the painting Forest Landscape with Animals Fighting by Roelant Savery, which became part of the Wiesbaden Museum's collection in 1943

The painting Forest Landscape with Animals Fighting by Roelant Savery (1576—1639) was looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis. Documents in the museum archive show unambiguously that the work is not the legal property of Museum Wiesbaden. On 12 February 1943, a request was issued by the museum’s then director, Hermann Voss (1884—1969), to the cultural secretary in Wiesbaden for approval to purchase a painting: ‘Thanks to the good offices of Herr Schumann, the representative of the Frankfurt chapter of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts [Reichskammer der bildenden Künste], and Dr. Holzinger of the Städelsches Kulturinstitut, the Finance Department for the wider Frankfurt region has agreed to make one of the confiscated paintings available for purchase by the Wiesbaden Picture Gallery [Gemäldegalerie], and in view of the charitable status of the gallery, to let us have it at a reduced price. The painting in question is a fairly large landscape by the famous Antwerp animal painter Roelant Savery, featuring numerous animals depicted in the artist’s well-known style. The price asked for the painting is only 1,600 RM, far less than it would ordinarily fetch on the art market, and so represents a generous concession to the gallery. Unfortunately, however, we are not in a position to cover the cost from our inhouse budget. We cannot allow the opportunity to pass us by, since the Finance Department would never offer us further concessions if we neglected to accept this one, and so I request that you consider the possibility of applying to the mayor for the sum in question, as an unforeseen expenditure, unless you have another suitable solution.’

Shortly afterwards, permission was granted to purchase the painting via the mayor, and on 30 July 1943 the painting was conveyed to Museum Wiesbaden by car from Schumann, the art dealers in Frankfurt. Hermann Voss was director at Wiesbaden from 1935 to 1945. In 1943, he was appointed by Joseph Goebbels to succeed the recently deceased Hans Posse, both as Hitler’s special representative in charge of the proposed Führermuseum in Linz and as director of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. Voss continued concurrently in his post as director of Museum Wiesbaden until 1945. The so-called ‘Voss System’, implemented during his time in office, resulted in over 200 acquisitions for Wiesbaden.

Every object acquired under the scheme is now being systematically researched to discover its original provenance, both by the museum itself and by the Central Office for Provenance Research in Hesse. The ‘acquisition’ of the then little-known Savery painting was the result of an act of collusion between top-ranking and well-connected officials in the Rhine-Main region. The painting undoubtedly belonged to a Jewish collection in Frankfurt and only came to Museum Wiesbaden thanks to this culture of ‘mutual favours’ between people who, on the basis of their professional positions, saw themselves as authorized to turn the suffering of their Jewish fellow-citizens to Museum Wiesbaden’s advantage. The ‘network of friends’ used every opportunity afforded by an illegal and unjust state to promote lofty ideas of enlarging their collections, all the while turning a blind eye to the illegality and human cost this entailed. In doing so, they trampled on the very ideals and ideas for which art has always stood. From the outset of his career at Wiesbaden, Voss believed in the importance of fostering connections with other Hessian institutions, art dealers, and collectors. Alongside his ‘ordinary’ museum activities, such as organizing special exhibitions, he placed great emphasis on collaborating at an institutional level with other museums, like the Städel and the Liebighaus in Frankfurt, for the purpose of acquiring new works. One result was that the associates exchanged information about works confiscated from Jewish owners and helped each other to acquire them, their good relations leading to collaborative theft and unscrupulous dividing of spoils. The museum will continue to do all it can to discover the identity of the ‘liquidated’ Jewish owner. Until then, we will continue to display the picture, in the hope, amongst other things, that public visibility will help generate wider awareness of the work. To ensure there is no doubt about the painting’s origin prior to accession, the gallery label features a copy of the document that conclusively proves it was the object of politically motivated Nazi expropriation.

Dr. Peter Forster & Miriam Merz M. A.

Translation: Lance Anderson

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