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DOING RIGHT BY ART

IT’S NEVER TOO late to remedy art abuses, whether perpetrated for evil means or just triviality. Two examples come to mind: One involves the Nazis and French Vichy collaboration, a matter still to be fully resolved. The other, which once satisfied an owner’s whim and shape of a frame, has been recently brought right.

The Louvre’s Dorville Collection. Details of this stolen art are offered in Elaine Sciolino’s “The Louvre’s Art Sleuth is on the Hunt for Looted Paintings,” The New York Times, July 16, 2021. Sciolino describes, “In a frenzied, four-day auction in the grand hall of the Savoy Hotel in Nice in June 1942, buyers bid on paintings, sculptures and drawings from ‘the cabinet of a Parisian art lover….’ The administrator monitoring the sale, appointed by the French collaborationist Vichy regime, and René Huyghe, a paintings curator at the Louvre, knew the real identity of the art lover: Armand Isaac Dorville, a successful Parisian lawyer. They also knew that he was Jewish.”

Vichy’s “Aryanization” Laws. Sciolino continues, “The Louvre’s Huyghe bought 12 lots from Dorville’s collection with government funds on behalf of France’s national museums, and the Vichy authorities seized the proceeds of the entire auction under 1941 ‘Aryanization’ laws that allowed it to take over personal property owned by Jews. Two years later, five of Dorville’s family members were deported and perished in Auschwitz.”

The paintings have remained in the Louvre collection since the war.

“The Indiana Jones of Looted Paintings.” In 2020, the Louvre hired art historian Emmanuelle Polack as what Sciolino calls “the public face of the museum’s restitution investigations.”

Emmanuelle Polack, Saint-Germain-en-Laye-born 1965, French historian of art. Her 2017 doctorate is on the subject of Occupation art. Image by Joann Pai for The New York Times, July 16, 2021.

“For years,” Polack is quoted, “I cultivated a secret garden about the art market during the Occupation. And finally, it is recognized as a crucial field for investigation.” The French magazine Le Point describes her as “The Indiana Jones of Looted Paintings.”

Art Sleuthing. “The backs of paintings,” Polack says, “can be very talkative.” Sciolino writes, “She looked at the back of a portrait by the Impressionist painter Jean-Louis Forain and discovered a yellowing label, with an item number from the catalog of auction in Nice. ‘CABINET d’un AMATEUR PARISIEN,’ it read, with no other information about the seller’s identity.”

Jeune Femme Debout sur un Balcon, Contemplant des Toits Parisien, by Jean-Louis Forain. One of the Dorville collection. Image by RMN/Musée d’Orsay; Jean-Gilles Berizzi, via Louvre Museum.

Through research of public archives, sales catalogs, auction minutes, seller identities, government documents, and genealogical records, Polack located the Dorville heirs. However, this has yet to rectify matters.

Cultural Ministry Differences. Sciolino writes, “In May, the [French] government accepted the findings of the commission that examines reparation claims from victims of wartime anti-Jewish laws, which declared that the Dorville auction was carried out ‘without coercion or violence.’ ”

Pause here for a moment to reflect on the nature of the auction and the Dorville family fate afterward. 

What’s more, Sciolino observes, “France’s decision is in sharp contrast to a ruling by Germany’s Culture Ministry, which concluded in 2020 that the Dorville auction was a forced sale and returned three works bought there by [Hildebrand] Gurlitt, Hitler’s art dealer.”

Sciolino writes, “The Dorville heirs plan to challenge the government’s decision in a French court.… The outcome of the Dorville court case in France could have repercussions for museums in the United States that hold works from the auction, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University’s art gallery and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.”

A Happier Resolution. A 16th-century work by Flemish painter Joachim Beuckelaer has been restored, as noted by Mark Brown’s “Restoration Work Wipes Smile Off the Face of Dutch Vegetable Seller,”The Guardian, July 16, 2021.

The painting, as it long-resided at Audley End, Essex, England, with dark background, doctored shy smile, fudged top panel, and 400 years of grime. Image by English Heritage from The Guardian, July 16, 2021.

“At some point in the last 400 years,” Brown writes, “a painting restorer probably decided the Dutch vegetable seller was far too glum and should be smiling. Now it has been put right and she is once again enigmatic.”

A restorer at work on the painting. This and the following image by Christopher Ison/English Heritage from The Guardian, July 16, 2021.

What’s more, Brown says, “One of the biggest decisions was to remove a strip of canvas with a poorly painted tower and sky that was added in the 19th century, probably to make the work fit a square frame.”

“It seems quite a crazy thing to do,” says English Heritage’s Alice Tate-Harte. “Why not find a frame that fitted? But this did happen an awful lot in country houses.”

The restored painting is now on display at Audley End house and garden in Essex, England. Image by Christopher Ison/English Heritage from The Guardian, July 16, 2021.

Once the years of yellowed varnish and grime were removed, the result is a work worthy of Beuckelaer, known for market and kitchen scenes with elaborate displays of food and household equipment. As for the young lady’s restored expression, Tate-Harte says, “She looks more confronting I think, more serious.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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