22 May 2018

Provenance is a landscape

by Marc Masurovsky

Provenance is a landscape where every gap is like a gorge that one crosses on a bamboo bridge. Every stretch of time left unexplained is like a desert or a forest that one crosses seemingly without end.

It is the perfect post-modern expression of a history made of fragments of time, place and humanity, and we have to make sense of it.

If provenance is a legal document, it is woefully lacking.

If it is a security questionnaire, It becomes an open invitation to a tight interrogation.

Hayden White would feel right at home with a provenance because it exemplifies that tired motto: history is fiction.

Provenance is supposed to explain the history of an object. The basic components are time, place and people. Sometimes you have more people than places but no time markers.

Sometimes, a provenance will be like a ground hog poking its head up for a brief moment.

Hi, my name is John Smith and I owned a painting by Hans Holbein in 1969 and I won't tell where I bought it, so there. Sure enough, it disappears in its hole and you're left with a ground hog's view of history.

Innocence and truth

by Marc Masurovsky

We are socialized from an early age to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are told, at least in the United States, that we are innocent until proven guilty, even if we were caught with the blood-soaked knife in our right hand and the unlit stick of dynamite in the left hand, several hundred thousand dollars of crispy cash in one hundred dollar denominations heaped in a pile in the corner. Innocent until proven guilty. Tell the truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God.

If we are told to tell the truth, we learn that the lie, which is the opposite of the truth, is a bad thing. If we lie, that is, if we do not tell the truth as it is, it makes us into bad people, into liars, and we deserve whatever gets thrown at us by our parents, our friends, and/or total strangers in a position of authority. We will go to hell, no questions asked. We should not do business with people who lie. They should be marginalized, ostracized, condemned for what they are—liars.

If people lie, does that mean that they are dishonest? Can you be an honest businessman and lie at the same time? Does it depend on who you lie to and what you lie about? Are you a liar if you tell only one lie? Or can you tell one lie a month and still not be viewed as a liar? Or one a year? Or one a week? Can you be dishonest once or twice a year and still be considered to be honest?

Can you be in business and tell the truth no matter what? Can you stay in business and tell the truth? What does it really mean to tell the truth? There are so many people who say: “well, I told a small lie today. Nothing much. No one got hurt.” Or someone confesses: “That was a white lie, actually.” A white lie? And what’s a black lie? Or a red lie? One can only infer that the “white lie” is on par with the small lie, it is of no consequence. No one gets hurt. We’re cool, right?

Is an inflated story a lie if it does not reflect accurately the facts as they unfolded? If you overrate the value of an object, are you lying about the object’s true value? Since value, for the most part, is subjective, is inflation or deflation a lie because it is inaccurate? Is the inaccuracy a deliberate part of a negotiating strategy to either buy or sell or exchange an asset? If so, does that make you, the inflator or deflator, a liar, a dishonest person? Should I continue to do business with you?

If you attribute a painting, a drawing, a print, a sculpture, a piece of furniture, to an artist who is not the actual artist and you do so knowingly? In other words, you “mis-represented” the authorship of the object. Is a deliberate, thought-out, calculated “mis-representation” as bad as a lie? After all, you chose not to tell the truth about the object. Does that make you a dishonest person or a clever negotiator or salesperson? Is the art of the deal anchored in calculated misrepresentations, small lies, white lies?

What about the professional relationships between dealers, collectors, galleries, museums and their clients, the artists they represent, the brokers with whom they must deal, the curators and experts who are “in between” somewhere in the transaction, the endless parade of support staff, donors, investors, specialists, historians, and other experts? Are they all telling the truth? Or are they all engaging in a massive cornucopia of white lies, small lies, unaccountable “honest mistakes” quickly patched with a self-flagellating [well-calculated] self-mortifying tweet that same afternoon or the next morning—early!—and accompanying selfie, hinting that forgiveness is in order until the next mishap occurs? If everyone involved in the art trade commits such mishaps, is that person shunned, excluded, treated as a pariah, unreliable, lacking all credibility? If so, no one might be left standing in the art market. It might actually implode from an acute attack of truth telling.

Business as usual

by Marc Masurovsky

The twenty-year old discussion about Nazi looted art and restitution tends to skirt a fundamental point: how was it able to happen? And most importantly, how were its fruits internationalized and monetized on a global scale?

In the interwar years, many paths led to New York, the emerging global center of attraction for artists, bankers, industrialists and intellectuals, including those who were anxious to start a new life away from the Nazi madding crowd.

If one looks at art as a business, then one can understand that the rise to power of Hitler on January 30, 1933, did not put an abrupt end to business relations between Germans and their counterparts outside the nascent Third Reich. In fact, it was business as usual. Many scholars have already covered this ground, but have been shy to point out that the Nazi plan against its perceived enemies, especially the Jewish community of the Reich and ultimately of continental Europe, was grounded in economic motivations as much as it was rooted in age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes and myths of alleged Jewish evil and malfeasance towards civil society and its institutions, even going as far as accusing Jews of holding the Zeitgeist of the nation hostage to their supposed base needs.

That said, the art world continued to function as before January 1933, except for the inevitable casualties of business under the Nazis, who enforced interdictions against artists and intellectuals and their supporters in the cultural and financial spheres. The attack against so-called degenerate art, objectionable forms of expression, forced the disgorgement of thousands of works and objects onto the private art market, followed by the purging of such banned pieces from German state museums and their sale inside and outside the Reich. The international community responded with its checkbook and began acquiring at bargain basement prices, works which had not been so easily available during the Weimar period.

The Nazis understood the financial power of art as a pendant to their attack on Kultur which eventually extended across Europe.
Let’s take a look at the economic infrastructure through which art flows—companies, banks, middlemen—because art is also an investment. Dealers and collectors alike are intrinsically connected to the financial and commercial interests of a nation, as well as its civil servants who rationalize and organize policy to enable economic growth, trade and financial investments both inside the Reich and abroad. Germany is a net exporting country as a consequence of the Versailles Treaty, forced to rely on foreign subsidiaries to generate markets so as to ensure its survival. The interwar era of global cartels brought financiers and industrialists of all major countries together at the table, as well as institutions such as the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), whose members were instrumental in reshaping the financial map of the world, and helping to seal the fate of countries like Czechoslovakia. Should it come as no surprise that art travels with these businessmen, becomes a source of investment, serves as collateral, money is borrowed to acquire art as much as assets are leveraged to ensure transactions which have nothing to do with art.

In sum, the domestic plunder of German citizens and their art collections finds natural outlets in and through networks of affiliation long ago established and strengthened across the international corporate community. The appeal of specific styles by conservative elites—from antiquities to medieval and old masters all the way to the 18thand early 19thcenturies—act as a pump for art dealers with ready access to those works being funneled into the market by desperate people seeking quick cash to subsist and/or to fund emergency trips into exile and to safe havens.

The evidence is compelling that, from the first forced sales of summer 1933 in Berlin, buyers were in attendance from neighboring countries and far-flung ones—Great Britain and even the United States. The incidental business tourists who happened to find themselves in Nazi Germany with some disposable cash frequented auction houses where Jewish-owned property was being sold. These items in turn were repatriated back to their native countries to be included into their places of business and residence.

Hence, from the mid-1930s, looted cultural property is flowing outward following long-established networks of trade and kinship ties between foreign clients and their German dealers and middlemen.

The same scenario is repeated even more brutally following the March 1938 Anschluss of Austria with American investment banks like Goldman Sachs advising its clients to buy up devalued property ensnared in Aryanization procedures. Let’s not be naïve, as there are hundreds of Allied companies operating subsidiaries in the Greater German Reich with which they are not yet at war. Normal business relations continue unimpeded, these subsidiaries allow their boards to be aryanized by transferring out their Jewish cadres in order to appease the New Order.

These accommodations with authoritarian governments began long before Hitler came to power. Indeed, since 1922, Benito Mussolini ruled Italy with an iron fist, which appealed to many foreign businessmen who preferred to have some sense of order that would maintain social peace in their Italian subsidiaries. Moreover, European and American dealers traveled to and from Italy every year throughout the 1920s and 1930s to conduct business, exchange or acquire works of art, organize and borrow exhibits for display in their homelands. Hence, Fascism and later on Nazism did not create moral and ethical qualms for Europeans and American citizens as they pursued business opportunities with authoritarian, racist, racialist governments.

So, when we discuss how on earth did objects looted during the early years of the Third Reich ever manage to enter Western European and American collections, one should not look too far and too deep for an answer to that question. The same reasoning applied to the sale and exchange of other commodities. For instance, the Leipzig Trade fair attracted American buyers up until the late 1930s, even though trade associations in the United States expressed some concerns over the probity of maintaining commercial relations with companies in the Reich that discriminated against their Jewish employees and which had absorbed Jewish businesses through aryanizations, selling the aryanized property to foreign buyers.

Also, the international gold trade had been mired in some controversy after the Anschluss and the invasion of Czechoslovakia with the blessings of France and Great Britain, the gold reserves of both countries having been absorbed by the Reich, and their contents used on international markets to acquire badly needed foreign currencies. The US Treasury became aware of these movements of gold but were unable to prevent those bars from entering the US gold reserves on account of a fundamentalist approach to the international gold market. Nothing should be done to disrupt the inflow and outflow of gold because the dollar’s value was pegged to a fixed value of gold. Hence, any political disruption of the international gold matket rooted in discrimination against gold provided by the Reich as collateral to purchase foreign currencies was prohibited, unless the US wanted to destabilize the dollar’s value and therefore endanger the economic recovery of the US in the years following the Great Depression.

The international art trade mirrored closely the way in which international business relations were conducted between the future Allied and Axis countries. Provenance of goods and services was never held to account as a prerequisite for conducting business. Hence, the desire to question the origin of the goods and services was rarely raised and even when it was, could not be invoked as a reason not to conduct business with a German or Italian entity or individual. One would have to wait for a state of war to exist between the US, Great Britain and the Axis powers to restrict trade relations, including the international movement of art objects.

But, as we all know, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

17 April 2018

Teaching plunder to children Part Two

by Marc Masurovsky

This is the continuation of a set of slides developed for children ages 9 to 13 who attended a Jewish middle school in Michigan.  Feel free to use them!

The end... for now.