LONDON, March 2-It's not the most popular or the most valuable work in the collection, but all of a sudden Eugene Delacroix's powerful "Christ on the Cross" has become a must-see painting for visitors to the National Gallery here. The radiant canvas has become an object of attention this week because of its historical provenance -- or, more precisely, its lack of one. It is one of several dozen important works that the National Gallery now fears might have been looted by the Nazis during their conquest of Europe in the 1930s and '40s.
As part of an international effort to help restore Nazi plunder to its rightful owners, several major museums here have committed to investigate any works of art acquired since 1933 that do not have a clear and Nazi-free chain of ownership. The National Gallery says it is is the first museum to issue a list of "dubious provenance" paintings in its collection, but the practice is expected to spread to museums around the world. The effort follows a conference in Washington in December at which 44 nations approved a set of guidelines for handling art looted by the Nazis. The Delacroix crucifixion is on the list because little is known about its whereabouts during the Nazi era. The 19th-century French painting is believed to have been in the collection of a German Jew until 1932, when it was sold for a surprisingly low price at auction. It turned up next in 1975 in the possession of a Paris art dealer, who sold it to the National Gallery in 1976.
On Monday, the National Gallery listed 120 works of dubious provenance it has acquired since 1933, the year Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party won control of the Berlin government. The list includes two Claude Monet landscapes and works by Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso and Camille Pissarro. The gallery pledged to investigate each object's history and to try to establish a definite chain of possession to make sure it is not holding property stolen by the Nazis.
"Nobody knows whether this kind of thing will lead to the restoration or compensation for any owners," said Janice Lopatkin, of the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust. "But we wouldn't be asking museums to go through the process if we didn't suspect that there are works stolen by the Nazis in prominent collections around the world." When the Third Reich fell in 1945, Allied soldiers found large caches of priceless art that had been snatched from private homes and museums all over Europe. Some works were returned to their prewar owners, but thousands of pieces passed into the world art market. In recent years, museums and governments have been trying to develop an international system to track the Nazi plunder.
British museums have agreed to provide the results of their investigations to the Art Loss Register, an international organization that tracks stolen works and tries to return them to the owners. In Britain, though, even a painting clearly determined to have been stolen by Nazis probably would not be returned to its owner. Because British museums are full of objects from around the world, legislation bans the return of museum exhibits to their place of origin. That's why the British Museum still proudly displays the Elgin Marbles, lifelike carvings that were chopped from the Parthenon temple in Athens and shipped here for display in the early 19th century. If a British museum were to find an art work stolen by the Nazis in its collection, it would keep it but presumably would offer compensation to the owner.
c Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
TOULOUSE, France, March 3 (Reuters) - Police said on Wednesday they had arrested 70 people suspected of looting historic chateaux and luxury residences across southwest France over more than a year. Regional gendarmerie chief Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Philippe Pele said the arrests had been made over the past 48 hours and that most of those detained were gypsies.
``This was one of the biggest operations of its kind in France,'' said Pele. He told reporters that a mammoth 450 cubic metres (16,000 cubic feet) of antique furniture and other valuable objects had been seized in 15 clandestine depots. Three magistrates launched an investigation in January 1998 after a series of robberies in 300 chateaux and up-market residences in the region.
``Teams of thieves systematically plundered their targets which were located by second-hand (antiques) dealers,'' Pele said, adding that most of the stolen objects had been were sent to Italy.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited.
The booming Aboriginal art market is enduring yet another fakery scandal, this one reaching the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One of Australia's most noted painters, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, told the gallery this week that two of its five paintings bearing his name are fakes. "We're not allowed to comment because it has become a police matter," a curator at the gallery, Mr Ken Watson, said yesterday. Police are investigating the origin of another 20 paintings supposedly by Clifford Possum which have been withdrawn from sale at a private Sydney gallery after questions were raised about their authenticity. "These paintings are not mine. I am worried about my name," Mr Possum said yesterday.
His allegations reopen a much larger problem - the wide prevalence of inauthentic or poorly provenanced works in the Aboriginal art market. "For every authentic painting we see, we see two or three that are not authentic, and most of the fakes go overseas," Semon Deeb, co-director of the Jinta Desert Art gallery in Sydney, said yesterday. The 66-year-old artist's career has been plagued by forgeries since his rise in the 1980s. Mr Possum said yesterday he wanted some answers. "This fella Patrick should show them where he got the paintings," he said.
He was referring to Patrick Corbally Stourton, a Sydney dealer in Aboriginal art, who last week withdrew two dozen paintings from sale at the Christopher Day Galleries in Woollahra after Mr Deeb challenged most of the works. Last week, Mr Deeb flew Mr Possum to Sydney from Alice Springs. On Friday, Mr Possum went to Mr Corbally Stourton's warehouse gallery in Mascot, where he disclaimed authorship of all but three of the works that had been withdrawn from sale. "I bought these works in good faith from a dealer with a long-standing relationship with Clifford Possum," Mr Corbally Stourton said yesterday. "That dealer, John O'Loughlin, took Clifford to London in 1991, where he met the Queen at Buckingham Palace and had a successful show. O'Loughlin has to provide clear evidence that these are Clifford Possum works or else I will return the paintings." Mr O'Loughlin said yesterday he had acquired the works from various sources, had rejected many fakes, and had sold the works in good faith, believing them to be by Clifford Possum. "I basically vouched for the quality of the paintings. I believe I am a very good judge of his work, but I haven't been able to personally verify with Clifford each one of them. I will, with time, catch up with Clifford and go over these paintings with him," he said.
"To do the right thing, they have to be withdrawn from sale, which Patrick has done. This has got to be cleared up because it's not good for Clifford and he's a wonderful character." What complicates the matter is that on Friday, when police asked Mr Possum if he had ever seen one of the disputed works before, he replied, "No," and an officer then produced a photo of the painting being held by Mr Possum. The artist spent much of yesterday painting and hoping for a resolution. "I'm a custodian of the Anmadyerre people and these paintings bring me shame," he said.
MYSTERY last night surrounded the whereabouts of a treasure trove of 400-year-old Chinese porcelain, jade and gold ingots recovered from the South China Sea off Brunei. Most of the blue and white ceramics are thought to be from the mid to late Ming dynasty and were found in a sunken junk, members of the salvage team said. Hundreds of trading vessels crossed from southern China every year and although discoveries of sunken treasure in South East Asia are not rare, this could prove one of the largest. The contents of other junks have been worth between £2 million and £10 million at auction in London. The gold could push up its value, but its location is unknown. The chief engineer of the salvage vessel told Singapore's Straits Times that his divers were told not to return to the wreck site. He said: "I think another salvage team was sent back to get the gold later on." The ceramics - bowls, serving dishes, plates, jars and jugs - were washed, recorded and packed on to a barge last summer before being sent ashore with a naval escort at the end of every day, but a spokesman for Christie's in Singapore said news of the find had yet to reach the auction circuit. Brunei museum officials refused to comment.