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art crime

Book Review and Giveaway: “Hitler’s Art Thief”

Hitler's Art Thief

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to read an advance proof copy of Susan Ronald’s forthcoming book, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures. This book is slated to be published next month, on September 22, 2015. Ronald recounts and pieces together the story of Cornelius Gurlitt, a recluse who received a lot of media attention when over a thousand works of art were discovered in his Munich apartment in November 2013.1 Much of Cornelius’ collection was inherited from his father Hildebrand; the latter was an art dealer during the Nazi era who built his personal collection from the spoliation of museums and Jewish family estates. Susan Ronald’s book primarily is dedicated to telling the biography of Hildebrand, while simultaneously building up a broader context to explain the political and socio-cultural situation in Germany during WWI and WWII.

As an art historian, I felt like the latter third of the book (about the last one hundred pages or so) was especially interesting to me. This part of the book discusses underhanded ways in which Hildebrand Gurlitt amassed his collection, which included one twisted state of events that enabled Gurlitt to not even pay for any of the paintings he claimed at an auction of the Georges Viau collection in 1942!More than anything, though, I wanted to learn more about the stories behind some of the paintings which were stolen. Although Ronald focuses mostly on historical events regarding Hildebrand Gurlitt and his son Cornelius, there were snippets of information on paintings that I particularly enjoyed in this book.

Max Liebermann, "Two Riders on a Beach," 1901.

Max Liebermann, “Two Riders on a Beach,” 1901.

Ronald mentions Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on a Beach a few times in her book. This painting had been taken from the David Friedmann collection by Hildebrand Gurlitt. When authorities stormed Cornelius Gurlitt’s flat in 2013, they took this painting off of the wall, where it had hung for over four decades!3 Clearly, the Gurlitt family was proud of this purloined piece. Before that point, Cornelius’ father Hildebrand had hung this painting on his living-room wall in Dresden.4 The painting was returned to David Friedmann’s family. Two Riders on a Beach, was the first of the Gurlitt hoard to go to auction, was sold by Sotheby’s earlier this year in June.

Max Beckmann, "The Lion Tamer." Gouache and pastel on paper.

Max Beckmann, “The Lion Tamer.” Gouache and pastel on paper. Image courtesy Wikiart.

Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer is actually the piece which helped lead authorities closer to Cornelius and his collection. Cornelius put this piece up for auction at the Lempertz auction house in 2011. Ronald speculates that Cornelius may have opted to use this major auction house in order to get money quickly, perhaps to help pay his sister’s medical bills for her cancer treatments.4 When this painting went on the market, this major German auction house was contacted by layers who represented the family of Alfred Flechtheim, who had originally owned the painting during the Nazi era. Under pressure from these lawyers, Cornelius (who was the unnamed client selling the painting) agreed to split the proceeds with the heirs of the Flechtheim family. The Fletchtheim heirs felt that this action helped to at least acknowledge the wrongdoing which took place during the Nazi era, although I wish that they could have received all of the proceeds!

Matisse, "Seated Woman" or "Woman Sitting in Armchair."

Matisse, “Seated Woman,” “Woman Sitting in Armchair,” or The Seated Woman by an Open Window.

Susan Ronald also writes a few times about Matisse’s Seated Woman. I liked learning about this painting, which originally belonged to the Jewish art dealer David Rosenberg, since I recently wrote about another Matisse painting that was once owned by David Rosenberg. Unforunately, Seated Woman is still under controversy: despite the apparent fact that Hildebrand Gurlitt took this painting, there isn’t a concrete trail of evidence to pinpoint how Gurlitt came into possession of the painting. However, luckily, it is agreed that the painting did belong to the Rosenbergs. Although it has been announced that the Matisse painting will be returned, it is uncertain when the transfer will actually take place, due to this legal limbo.6

I think that Hitler’s Art Thief is a good book for history buffs and also for those who want a basic introduction to the art looting which took place during the Nazi era. Even as a seasoned art historian (who has read dozens of books and articles on Nazi looting), I learned new things too! And I’m pleased to announce that, through the generosity of St. Martin’s Press, one lucky winner will be able to receive a free copy of this book!

Be among the first to read this new publication by entering this giveaway! I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on September 21, 2015. You can enter your name up to three times. Here are the ways you can enter:

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it).

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog or website, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for generously providing an advance review copy and giveaway copy of Hitler’s Art Thief.

1 Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in May 2014, bequeathed his collection to the Bern Art Museum in Switzerland. This action prompted outcry from Jewish groups, and the Bern museum is working to ensure that no looted art appears on Swiss soil. 

2 Susan Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 226-229.

3 Ibid., 315.

4 Ibid., 313.

5 Ibid., 312.

6 Ibid., 319.

 

— 7 Comments

Book Review and Giveaway: “The Art of the Con” by Anthony M. Amore

This is certainly the summer for new publications on art crime – and the summer isn’t even over yet! When I learned that Anthony M. Amore wrote a new book called The Art of the Con, I was in the middle of reading another recently-published book on art forgery by Noah Charney. I was curious to see if Amore’s book would be similar in content to Charney’s fantastic book.

For the most part, there wasn’t too much overlap between the content of Charney and Amore’s books. Both authors do discuss the forger Wolfgang Beltracci, but Amore goes into more detail in his book. (Amore dedicates essentially a whole chapter to Beltracci, whereas Charney dedicates a few pages to Beltracci within his broader discussion how forgery relates to different types of crime schemes.) Amore also elaborated on a lot of art cons and schemes that were unfamiliar to me, so I found a lot of the subject matter to be new and riveting.

Before reading this book, I was already familiar with Amore’s previous publication, Stealing Rembrandts (see my review HERE). Like Stealing Rembrandts, this new book The Art of the Con is an engaging read. I quickly read this book within a matter of days, not only because the subject matter was interesting to me, but because Amore’s writing style is accessible and entertaining. My critiques of this book are very minor: there were a handful of sentences in which pronouns were used in a confusing way, and I also disagreed with Amore mentioning that Cezanne was a Cubist (although the artist influenced Cubism, I would say that most art historians typically refer to Cezanne as a Post-Impressionist).1

All in all, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art crime, particularly in connection with scams relating to the buying and selling of art. I want to highlight a few things from this book which were of interest to me:

Caravaggio (?) or Circle of Caravaggio, "Apollo the Lute Player," c. 1597. Private Collection, USA (Ex-Badminton copy)

Caravaggio (?) or Circle of Caravaggio, “Apollo the Lute Player,” c. 1597. Private Collection, USA (Ex-Badminton copy). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Since I own a copy of Clovis Whitfield’s book Caravaggio’s Eye, I was interested to learn in Amore’s book about how Whitfield worked to curate a show, Caravaggio, with another art dealer named Larry Salander. The centerpiece of the show was a painting called Apollo the Lute Player (shown above), which Whitfield and Salander believed to be an autograph version by Caravaggio.2 In fact, Salander appraised the painting at $100 million, which was about one thousand times its previous sale price of $110,000!3 However, due to Salander’s unethical and criminal behavior in the art market scene, which Amore explores in detail, Whitfield ended up pulling this star component of the exhibition on the afternoon of the show’s opening! Despite Whitfield’s apparent lack of involvement in Salander’s misdoings, the show never mounted as originally planned (although some pictures were shown elsewhere), which led the Telegraph to call the exhibition, “The Star Show that Never Was.”

Matisse, Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque), 1928. Private Collection

Matisse, Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque), 1928. Private Collection

Amore mentions in his book about how the Seattle Art Museum was involved in a law suit in 1998, in which the museum which sued the Knoedler Gallery in New York. The museum, in turn, was being sued by the heirs of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg. The Seattle Art Museum had received Matisse’s Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque) (shown above) as a gift from Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The Bloedels had bought the painting from the Knoedler Gallery about forty years before donating the painting to the SAM. However, the Knoedler gallery gave false information to the Bloedels about the provenance of the painting, failing to admit that the painting had been looted from Paul Rosenberg during the Nazi era.After returning the painting to the Rosenberg family, I know that the SAM and Knoedler Gallery settled out of court: I’m inclined to think that the gallery gave cash to the museum, since the other option from the agreement was to give the SAM one or more works from the Knoedler inventory, and I currently can’t find any mention of the Knoedler Gallery in the online collection.5

Glass art falsely purported to be by Dale Chihuly, as sold by Michael Little

Glass art falsely purported to be by Dale Chihuly, as sold by Michael Little. Image via U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Amore dedicates a chapter of his book to dealing with the art con and fraud which takes place online. I was intrigued by the story of Michael Little, a man from Renton, Washington, who purported to sell works by Dale Chihuly on eBay (one example of such fraudulent glassware is shown above). Even after eBay pulled Little’s listings after being alerted to the fraud, Little continued to sell the fraudulent glassware online, in person, and through a Renton auction house! One collector was swindled out of thousands of dollars, after he bought pieces that he intended to donate to Gonzaga University’s Jundt Art Museum.6 Little was sentenced to only five months in prison. I later found out, after finishing Amore’s book, that the judge sentencing Little commented that he wished he could also order Little to attend basic training in the Army!

I’ve learned a lot from reading The Art of the Con. I’m very glad that I read this book, and I’ll be sure to continue to use it as a resource in the future. I’m happy to announce that I can share this book with someone else, too! One lucky reader can win a free copy of this book! Local and international readers are equally encouraged to enter. I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on August 17, 2015. So you have seven days to enter this giveaway! You can enter your name up to three times. Here are the ways you can enter:

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it).

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog or website, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for generously providing a review copy and giveaway copy of The Art of the Con.

1 For Cezanne reference, see Anthony M. Amore, The Art of the Con (New York: Palgrave MacMillan Trade, 2015), 114.

2 Ibid., 64-65. Other scholars contest Whitfield’s findings that the painting is autograph. For one example,  see footnote 3 in Florian Thalmann, Irony, Ambiguity, and Musical Experience in Caravaggio’s Musical Paintings (University of Minnesota, 2013), p. 4.

3 Ibid., 64, 66.

4 Ibid., 54.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 214.

— 9 Comments

Art History and Murder!

David, Death of Marat, 1793

“Murder can be an art, too.” – Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948)

 ________________________________________________________________

When I was a kid, I used to watch rerun episodes of “Perry Mason” on TV all the time. Maybe that series initially sparked my interest in murder mysteries. Even now, as an adult, I still like to read detective stories and watch murder mystery shows. Lately I’ve been coercing my husband to watch episodes from the fourth season of “The Mentalist” almost every night. I guess “The Mentalist” is my modern version of “Perry Mason.”

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to write a post on art history topics that involve murder. I’m not necessarily interested in depictions of murder, though. Gruesome depictions of murder are commonplace (yawn!) in art, including David’s famous Death of Marat shown above. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to discuss when artists or art historians have been murdered, committed murder, or accused of murder. These were the three cases that came to my mind:

Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, 1621-25

1) In 1606, the volatile painter Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassini. The pretext for the duel had to do with a tennis match, but art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon believes that these two men were really fighting over a prostitute. Graham-Dixon believes that Caravaggio was attempting to castrate Tomassini, since Tomassini bled to death from a femoral artery in his groin.

But Caravaggio’s associations with murder go even further. It is also thought that Caravaggio himself was murdered. While on the run from his murder conviction, Caravaggio fled to Malta and then Porto Ercole (Italy). Scholars think that Caravaggio was murdered either by relatives of Tomassoni or by the Knights of Malta (or at least one knight from Malta). The latter theory is suggested because it appears that Caravaggio was convicted of inflicting bodily harm on a noble knight in Malta. The knight (with or without his fellow knights) may have pursued Caravaggio and killed him.1

Mengs, Portrait of Winckelmann, after 1755

2) This murder story is probably one of the least expected, I think. The 18th century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is best known for his studies on Greek sculpture and open homosexuality, was murdered in 1768. After visiting Vienna (and being received by the Empress Maria Theresa), Winckelmann stopped at a hotel in Trieste on his way back to Rome. At that point, he was murdered at the hotel by a man named Franceso Arcangeli. Winckelmann was showing coins that had been presented to him by the Empress Maria Theresa, so it is possible that the motive for murder was monetary. However, Professor Alex Potts has mentioned other possible reasons for murder (including conspiracy or a sexual motive). Potts also explored how Winckelmann’s murder affected scholarship (both Winckelmann’s own scholarship and a later interest in the deceased art historian’s work).2

Left: Ana Mendieta, Untitled from The Tree of Life Series, 1977. Right: Photograph of Carl Andre

3) This murder story involves not one, but two, 20th century artists. In 1985 the performance artist Ana Mendieta (depicted above on the left) fell 34 stories to her death, falling from her apartment in Greenwich Village (in New York). The only other person who was with Mendieta at the time of her death was her husband of eight months: Carl Andre, the minimalist sculptor. Andre was charged with second-degree murder, but was acquitted after a three-year struggle in the court system. Art in America claims that evidence was suppressed in the trial, due to sloppy work on the part of the police and prosecutors.

The turbulent relationship between this couple has been turned into a play, “Performance Art in Front of the Audience Ought to be Entertaining.” The play is set on the night that Ana was murdered, but the curtain falls before Ana actually dies – in other words, the theatergoer is left to decide what happened right before Ana died.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Do you know of other artists or art historians who have been involved with murder cases?

1 The death of Caravaggio is explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon in his book Caravaggio andin his BBC documentary, “Who Killed Caravaggio?” Watch Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 on YouTube.

2 Alex Potts and Joahann Joachim Winckelmann, History of the Art of Antiquity: Texts and Documents (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), p. 15-15. Text available online HERE.

— 12 Comments

Book Review: “Stealing Rembrandts” by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

"Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists" by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg (2011)

This past weekend I finished reading the fairly new book, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists. I thought that this book was an interesting and engaging way to discuss art crime, since it specifically revolved around heists of Rembrandt paintings and etchings. I thought that the approach to the book was well-balanced, too. Amore and Mashberg included tidbits of information about Rembrandt’s biography within their discussion of different crimes, which helped to vary the writing and information presented in the book. Without occasional tangents into Rembrandt’s life and works, I think that the presentation of crime scenes would have become too monotonous for the reader.

I thought that I would present just a few of the fun things that I learned from this book.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III (commonly called the "Takeaway Rembrandt"), 1632. Image courtesy Wikipedia

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob de Gehyn III is the most frequently stolen painting in history.1 (I think that this definition of “stolen” might need some more precise definition, especially when you consider works of art that were displaced or looted during times of war.2) Nonetheless, it is impressive to consider that this painting was stolen four times from the Dulwich Picture Gallery: in 1966, 1973, 1981 and 1983. Eight paintings were stolen in the 1966 heist, including Rembrandt’s A Girl at a Window (1645, see detail HERE). (Side note: Dulwich has had a difficult time with art thieves! In December 2011, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture was stolen from Dulwich Park, which is just a stone’s throw from the Dulwich Picture Gallery.)

Gauguin, "Brooding Woman," 1891

One of the most amusing stories in Stealing Rembrandt revolves around the 1972 heist of the Worcester Art Museum. During this heist, several works of art were stolen, including Gauguin’s Brooding Woman. I was amused (and horrified) to read that Gauguin’s painting was placed on the car roof rack of the thieves’ getaway car; a man in the passenger seat stuck his right arm out of the window to hold the painting down during the escape!3 Gauguin’s subject doesn’t look too happy about her rough ride through the Worcester streets, does she?

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I also learned something interesting about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of March 18, 1990. During the heist, for reasons known only to the thieves, a Rembrandt painting was removed from the walls and then abandoned. When officials came to the museum after the robbery, they noticed that Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1629) was sitting on the floor and leaning against a chest, with the back panel facing outward. Perhaps the oak panel was too heavy to carry, or perhaps the thieves forgot to carry it out. Either way, this painting was spared (although another Rembrandt painting, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, was stolen during the heist). Given that none of the stolen Gardner paintings have been recovered yet, I feel like Rembrandt’s portrait deserves some special Harry Potter-esque nickname, like “The Painting That Lived” or “The Painting That Was Spared.”

Titian, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt," 1510

Stealing Rembrandts also discussed some very interesting recovery stories for works of art. Titian’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” was stolen in an art heist in 1995 (from the Marquess of Bath’s estate in Longlead, England). The painting was recovered – of all things – in a plastic shopping bag at a bus stop.

Rembrandt, "Prodigal Son," 1636. Dry-point etching

I also was personally interested to know that a Rembrandt etching was stolen from a home in Sammamish, Washington in 2007. (I chuckled when I noticed that Sammamish was described as a “tiny Northwest village” in the book. That’s not quite true!) Stealing Rembrandts discusses the crime and the arrest of the individuals who were trying to sell the etching. However, I learned this evening that the book fails to mention one thing: although the owner identified the recovered frame, the owner believes that the recovered etching may be a fake.

Hans Memling, "Last Judgment," 1467-1471. Image courtesy Wikipedia

And finally, although this isn’t a recent crime, I wanted to include one last tidbit that I learned in Stealing Rembrandts. I didn’t know beforehand that Hans Memling’s “Last Judgment” triptych was stolen by pirates in the late 15th century (shortly after the triptych was completed). The painting was being shipped from Bruges, Belgium to Florence’s Medici Chapel. However, ever since the theft, the triptych has been located in Gdansk, Poland.4

Has anyone else read Stealing Rembrandts yet? Any other art crime books that you would recommend for my summer reading?

1Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 67.

2 According to Noah Charney, the Ghent altarpiece claims the title of the most “coveted” work of art, having been involved in the highest number of thefts and crimes than any other work of art. To learn more about the Ghent altarpiece and crime, see Noah Charney’s book, “Stealing the Mystic Lamb.” Review and information are found HERE.

3 Amore and Mashberg, p. 43.

4 Ibid., 11.

— 2 Comments

Book Review: “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa”

Charney, "The Thefts of the Mona Lisa," published by ARCA (2011)

If you are looking for a book this holiday season (either to give as a gift or to read yourself), I heartily recommend Noah Charney’s new book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa. I read the book over Thanksgiving break (which was easy to do, since the book is just a little over 100 pages). Like Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb, this book on the Mona Lisa was informative, thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining.

In some ways, I think that Charney presents books in the same way that I like to deliver art history lectures. He even includes the same kind of anecdotes that I think students would find interesting. I even laughed out loud when I read Charney’s musings on what Leonardo da Vinci might have accomplished if Ritalin was available in the 15th century.1

This book not only discusses the infamous 1911 theft of the statue by handyman Vincenzo Peruggia,  but other crimes involving the famous portrait. I particularly enjoyed reading about Picasso’s indirect involvement with the Mona Lisa: the artist was accused of stealing the Mona Lisa, but in reality was (only!) guilty of owning some Iberian statuettes which were stolen from the Louvre in 1906 or 1907. Charney even convincingly discusses how Picasso, as a criminal collector, may have hired the thief in the affaire des statuettes.2

Anyhow, you should read the book. It’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed just about everything in it. In some ways, I’m a little surprised that I liked the book so much, because I don’t particularly love the Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1506) as a work of art. Oh, I think the painting looks alright, but I’m a little repelled by the varnish and greenish-tint of the painting. And the crowd in front of the painting at the Louvre is off-putting, to say the least. I had a much more meaningful experience at the Louvre with one of Leonardo’s other paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483-1486).

But back to the Mona Lisa. I have to admit that I am much more impressed with this painting when I look at some of the digital restorations that have been proposed over the past few years. This one by Lumiere Technology is especially appealing to me. I like the bluish tint to the landscape and the delicacy (and visibility) of Lisa’s veil. I also like the digital reconstruction created by Naoko Gunji and Jane Vadnal (no link – I have yet to find a digital copy of the reconstruction online). Gunji and Vadnal sought to suggest the original colors, but also restore the original proportions of the painting. The reconstruction includes more of the columns which have been cropped off the sides of the original panel.3 On the flip side, some other suggested restorations available online seem a little too, uh, fanciful.

What are your thoughts on the Mona Lisa? Have you read Charney’s book yet? One other last plug for the book – proceeds from the book sales go to support ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. ARCA is an international nonprofit research group. If you love art crime, you should buy this book to support a very worthy cause!

Many thanks to Noah Charney and ARCA press for supplying a review copy of this book.

1 Charney, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, (ARCA: 2011), 12. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for starting projects, but never seeing them through. Consequently, a lot of the extant paintings by Leonardo are unfinished. Vasari even writes that Leonardo left the “Mona Lisa” unfinished. Although the painting seems to be finished today, it could be that Leonardo was never completely satisfied with the final product. See Charney, 21.

2 Charney, 55-59.

3 A reproduction of the Gungi and Vadnal reconstruction is found in David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 311.

— 6 Comments

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.