The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will review 12 artworks in its collection for possible links to Nazi looting. (Graphic/Gabriel Greschler)
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will review 12 artworks in its collection for possible links to Nazi looting. (Graphic/Gabriel Greschler)

Investigation: San Francisco museums may hold Nazi-looted art

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A view of Amsterdam at midday. A dark forest with sunlight peeking through the trees as a woman washes clothes in a river. A young boy feeding a monkey as a man to his left holds back a swan.

These are scenes from three paintings owned by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, part of a batch of 10 European artworks obtained between 1933 and 1945 that FAMSF is now reviewing for their possible connection to Nazi-looted art.

The city’s largest arts institution, which oversees the de Young Museum and the California Legion of Honor, has in total some 100,000 pieces of art. It “stands as one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States,” according to its website.

The 10 artworks were flagged by the Fine Arts Museums once before, in 2001, as potentially part of what has been called the greatest plunder of art in human history — when Hitler and high-ranking Nazi officials made it party policy to steal paintings, sculptures and furniture owned by Jewish families and European museums. As Nazi Germany oversaw the destruction of European Jewry and the murder of millions, its officials stole an estimated one-fifth of all European art in existence at the time, much of it taken right off the walls or pulled out of the cabinets of Jewish homes across Europe. The Nazis also looted many public museums in countries they occupied. One estimate puts the total loss from the thefts at $20.5 billion in today’s figures.

After an inquiry by J., FAMSF staffers said they have begun a new review of the 10 artworks, which span the 15th to 19th centuries, to gather more information about their ownership. They are also looking into expanded public access to information about these and other works. In addition, staff members are reviewing two other artworks brought to their attention by J. — a 15th-century painting of Mary Magdalene and a 19th-century sketch. All of these works are currently in storage, not on public display.

This 15th century painting of Mary Magdalene by an unknown artist is one of two works in the FAMSF collection flagged for investigation by J. (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)
This 15th century painting of Mary Magdalene by an unknown artist is one of two works in the FAMSF collection flagged for investigation by J. (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)

“We take any claims or questions or inquiries about our collection very seriously,” said Melissa Buron, director of the art division at FAMSF.

“We do as much research as we possibly can to fill in gaps in knowledge that may exist,” she said. “It’s a continuous process, and gaps in provenance in any museum collection are not particularly uncommon. But that’s the work of a curator, to over many years fill in those gaps to the best of our ability and to continuously work on that. We want to be as transparent as possible.”

FAMSF has submitted the 12 artworks in question to the Art Loss Register, a world-renowned database that provides information to museums about stolen art. The website says it has cataloged over 700,000 items. FAMSF said it will share the results of the ALR review with J.

“This would be the way to put those pieces together,” said Buron. She said her institution regularly runs artworks through the database, especially when making new acquisitions.

“If there are any notable gaps in provenance, we do that due diligence before it comes into the collection,” she said. “But with things that have been in the collection for a long time, it’s good to periodically run things through. And, of course, when you’re doing it at different moments in the course of history, there may be new things coming to light.”

Miriam Newcomer, a spokesperson for FAMSF, declined to provide the estimated value of the 12 works.

An merican soldier inspects German loot stored in a church in Elligen, Germany, April 24, 1945. (Photo/National Archives)
An American soldier inspects German loot stored in a church in Elligen, Germany, April 24, 1945. (Photo/National Archives)

The FAMSF website to date has no dedicated section on which artworks have been flagged, the research into their history, or the museum’s policy on such matters — information that many other American museums routinely provide.

And in the website descriptions that accompany each artwork, there are scant, and in some cases missing, provenances. (A provenance lists each known owner of the artwork in chronological order.)

The review by FAMSF represents a larger reckoning taking place in the art world over the last 30 or so years, with museums and countries acknowledging that objects in their collection may have been looted by Nazis.

The best works were taken by Hitler, who had plans for a postwar art museum near his birthplace in Austria. Hermann Göring, one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, would display stolen artwork at his hunting lodge near Berlin.

Hitler despised modern art, which he considered to be a sign of societal decay. Some historians also speculate that Hitler’s failed art career contributed to his obsession with collecting stolen art. In 1937, the Nazis hosted a “Degenerate Art” show in Munich, where 600 modernist artworks, all decried by Hitler, were on display. In some instances, the Nazis destroyed works by modernist and Jewish artists.

"The Monkey and the Gander" by Frans Snyders, ca. 1613 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)
“The Monkey and the Gander” by Frans Snyders, ca. 1613 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)

Hitler preferred classical European artworks from the 19th century, especially those showcasing Germany’s history. Many such looted artworks were sold to shady art dealers in Switzerland, France and other places who then sold them to museums around the world, including in America. The Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal currently has 29,863 flagged artworks cataloged from 179 museums in the United States alone — including FAMSF.

As the war ended, Allied countries made efforts to return the plundered artworks to their rightful owners, with varying degrees of success. Repositories were set up, such as the Munich Central Collecting Point Archive, where confiscated artworks were collected and then returned to their countries of origin, which were then supposed to track down the original owners. Groups such as the Monuments Men, a cadre of soldiers from 13 countries, ended up returning 5 million stolen objects taken by the Nazis. (A 2014 movie starring George Clooney told their story.)

While some returns were made immediately after the war, it wasn’t until 1998 that the Association of Art Museum Directors, to which the FAMSF belongs, set guidelines on how to handle art possibly linked to Nazi looting. One encourages museums to make public any “work of art in its collection [that] was illegally confiscated during the Nazi/World War II era and not restituted.”

The guidelines inspired the 1998 Washington Conference in D.C., where a group of 44 countries met and established a nonbinding legal framework regarding the return of stolen art. The conference coincided with one of the most famous legal cases surrounding the repatriation of stolen Nazi art, when Maria Altmann of Los Angeles reclaimed several Gustav Klimt paintings from the Austrian government that the Nazis had taken from her family during the war. The events were later dramatized in the 2015 movie “Woman in Gold” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

“People don’t really know the story of the art,” said Donald Burris, who served on the Altmann case as co-counsel, along with E. Randol Schoenberg. “They know the story of the ovens. The art-taking was more than just greed. It was an absolute policy of the Nazis to destroy culture.”

Nazi soldiers posing in Rome in 1945 with a painting stolen from the National Museum of Naples Picture Gallery.
German soldiers posing in Rome in 1944 with a painting stolen from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, which they are about to return in advance of Allied forces entering the city.  (Photo/German Federal Archives)

Still today, Jewish families are battling with museums and governments that hold their family treasures. In March 2020, a museum in Basel, Switzerland, agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to a family who lost 200 paintings as they fled Nazi Germany. The same year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., returned a Picasso to a Jewish family to avoid possible litigation. In April, a Dutch museum compensated the descendants of a Jewish family who sold a 1635 Bernardo Strozzi painting under duress to the Nazis. While the Dutch government acknowledged it was Nazi-looted, it declined to return the work to the family, ruling that it was in the public’s interest to have access to the art.

As recently as 2011, over 1,000 artworks thought to have been lost forever were discovered in a German apartment building. The son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of Hitler’s main art dealers, lived in the building and kept the art, with an estimated value of over $1 billion, in his possession.

As for the 10 paintings flagged by FAMSF in 2001, seven are credited to the Mildred Anna Williams Collection and list her as the most recent owner. Williams was a Parisian who, in 1929, promised her entire collection of over 100 works to the Legion of Honor. The collection was quickly packed up and shipped to San Francisco in 1940, weeks before the Nazis took over France.

Four of the Williams paintings list Knoedler and Co.’s Paris branch as the previous owner. Knoedler, an art dealership that was headquartered in New York City and closed in 2011, was involved in at least two documented cases of selling Nazi looted art.

The three paintings not from the Williams collection offer no provenance, each credited as “museum purchase” by the de Young Museum, its endowment fund or the Legion of Honor.

This March, J. flagged two additional paintings that the Fine Arts Museums has also agreed to review.

“Sketch to the Artists' Enchantment” Rudolph Grossman is one of two works in the FAMSF collection flagged for investigation by J. (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)
“Sketch to the Artists’ Enchantment” Rudolph Grossman is one of two works in the FAMSF collection flagged for investigation by J. (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)

One is the 15th-century portrait of Mary Magdalene that the FAMSF acquired in 1948. Its provenance only goes back as far as Oscar Bondy, a Jewish Austrian businessman whose large art collection was expropriated when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. After Bondy, the last known owner of the portrait was Hans Wendland, considered one of  “the most important” Nazi art dealers during the war, according to a declassified interrogation of Wendland in 1946.

Much of Bondy’s collection was discovered by U.S. troops after the war and returned to his widow, who auctioned them off in New York in 1949. A search in the Munich Central Collecting Point Archive database of Nazi-looted artworks, cataloged by Allied soldiers, does not include the Mary Magdalene painting.

The other artwork flagged by J. is “Sketch to the artists’ enchantment” by the relatively unknown artist Rudolph Grossman. It was acquired by the FAMSF in 1942. Grossman’s artworks were confiscated by the Nazis and some were featured in the 1937 “Degenerate Art” show. No provenance on the sketch is currently listed.

The 10 paintings flagged by FAMSF in 2001:

  1. Washerwoman by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
  2. Saint Anthony the Hermit by Colijn de Coter
  3. Madonna and Child by Francesco Granacci
  4. The Tow Path by Jacob Henricus Maris
  5. View of Amsterdam by Jacob Henricus Maris
  6. Rest on the Flight to Egypt by Polidoro da Lanciano
  7. Madame de Genlis by George Romney
  8. Mirth (Sketch for Head of Comedy) by George Romney
  9. The Monkey and the Gander by Frans Snyders
  10. A Village Road by Lodewijk de Vadder

The two paintings flagged by J.:

  1. Sketch to the artists’ enchantment by Rudolph Grossman
  2. Mary Magdalene by Unknown Tyrolean Master

Carla Shapreau, a lecturer of art and cultural property law at UC Berkeley who has devoted a portion of her research to investigating musical instruments lost during the Nazi era, including a 1722 Antonio Stradivari violin believed to be owned by Bondy that still hasn’t been found, said that Nazi-era provenance research requires a multifaceted approach and that standards have evolved over the years.

When it comes to reviewing one’s own collection, a museum generally begins its research “with a review of [its] acquisition file for the object under study and relevant materials may include, in addition to the acquisition file, historical correspondence, import/export documentation, historical expert certifications of authenticity and appraisals, restoration records, photographs, exhibition documentation, publication history, auction history, historical bills of sale, and many other records,” Shapreau said in an email to J.

"View of Amsterdam" by Jacob Maris, ca. 1870 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)
“View of Amsterdam” by Jacob Maris, ca. 1870 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)

She described the Art Loss Register as the “leading fee-based commercial database utilized for such searches” and said it “provides an important service.” However, she added, other relevant information about the 12 paintings may be in public and private archives that would require the museum to conduct onsite archival research, if the records are accessible.

“Relegating all research to an ALR database search and certification may, in some cases, be insufficient,” said Shapreau, who pointed to a number of examples where individuals or museums’ use of the ALR in provenance research was later put into question, including a case in May 2018 surrounding the background of a Persian antiquity from the fifth century BCE.

On its website, the ALR states, “We not only conduct an internal check of our own database — which includes the Interpol database — but also other specialist databases, archives and resources, including six external databases relating to the period 1933-45. Further research is then conducted by the ALR’s specialist team depending on the type of object and its provenance.”

The ALR site further notes that, “Unfortunately, no database of stolen art, antiques and collectables can be complete, but an ALR Certificate will provide an important defence and demonstration of due diligence as part of a holder’s good faith should any claim be brought forward for an object.”

No claims of ownership have been made for any of the paintings in question, according to Buron. She noted that missing provenances aren’t all that uncommon on the FAMSF website and their completion is an ongoing project. In some cases, she said, the museum may know the provenances but have not yet added them online. Also slowing the process, Buron said, is that the institution’s cataloging software and website is being updated and is in transition.

"Saint Anthony the Hermit" by Colijn de Coter, ca 1465-1520 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)
“Saint Anthony the Hermit” by Colijn de Coter, ca 1465-1520 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)

FAMSF staff members do not know why the 10 artworks were first called out in 2001 (the people who flagged them no longer work for the institution). At the time, they were included in the background research of 400 paintings acquired between 1933 and 1998. The 10 were voluntarily submitted in 2005 to the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, a project launched by the American Alliance of Museums where suspected artworks are submitted by U.S. museums. (FAMSF is a member of the alliance.)

FAMSF’s Buron described the era of Nazi-looted art as a “fascinating,” “troubling” and “complex” period of history.

“I think the more people that can help us understand what we might be missing, if that’s possible to do, would be really very much in line with the goals of our transparency around the collections,” she said.

Erin L. Thompson, a professor at the City University of New York who specializes in art crime, believes FAMSF is “trying to do the right thing” by submitting the 12 artworks to the ALR. She said technical difficulties and expenses make research into the background of artwork challenging.

“I always praise museums for trying,” she said. “You have to make sure what you have is accessible. So there can be accountability. So there can be information for specific heirs.”

"A Village Road" by Lodowijck de Vadder, ca. 1630 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)
“A Village Road” by Lodowijck de Vadder, ca. 1630 (Photo/Courtesy FAMSF)

Only recently have museums started to direct resources toward researching their collections for possible connections to Nazi-looted art, Thompson said.

“The thefts happened a long time ago,” she said, while “the changing of minds in the museum community is not that long ago. The minds you have to change are the people who are in possession of the information.”

At least part of the reason museums find this work challenging, said Thompson, is because their fundraising typically focuses on projects such as acquiring new works, something donors readily support, rather than on provenance research.

“Donate so that they can do this type of research,” she said, addressing potential donors. “I encourage people to keep an eye on the labels.”

And being transparent about suspicious artwork, said Thompson, will only serve to offer more clues to unravel the full extent of Nazi plundering.

“The point of it is to put your research out there,” she said, “so people who have other pieces of the puzzle can complete the puzzle.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.