NEW YORK—The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has engaged former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to conduct an independent review of claims by the estate of German artist George (Georg) Grosz (1893-1959) for two paintings in the museum’s collection.
The estate contends that Grosz never lost title to the oil paintings, which were acquired by MoMA more than 50 years ago. The image Bildnis Max Herrmann-Neisse, 1927, was purchased by the museum in 1952. Maler und Modell, 1928, was a gift made in 1954.
Though there is no current estimate available on the value of the two Grosz paintings, work by the artist has fetched as much as $2.2 million at auction.
The managing director of the Grosz estate,
Ralph Jentsch, art historian, curator and author of the forthcoming Grosz catalogue raisonné, claimed the paintings in November 2003. Since then Jentsch and MoMA have met repeatedly to share results of their research. Recently, in a meeting with Jentsch in New York on Jan. 5, MoMA director Glenn Lowry rejected the claim, Jentsch told ARTnewsletter. Yet there has been no formal action by the trustees of the museum. (Trustees of virtually all museums must confirm either a restitution decision or a denial recommendation by the professional staff.)
In a statement to ARTnewsletter, MoMA said its research had not substantiated the Grosz estate’s claim. However, MoMA noted, “because of the difficulty of confirming events that occurred 60 to 80 years ago, and a lack of concrete information on certain points in the case, open questions remain.”
The museum has asked Katzenbach, who served as attorney general and undersecretary of state under President Lyndon B. Johnson, to review the available documentation and to undertake any additional research he deems appropriate, including meeting with Jentsch and the Grosz heirs—the artist’s two sons, Peter and Martin Grosz. Katzenbach will report to the museum’s board on an unspecified date.
The two oil paintings are listed on MoMA’s Internet site under its provenance research project. The project, which is associated with the American Association of Museums’ Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (www.nepip.org), is intended to identify artworks in American museums that were created before 1946, acquired after 1932, and were or might have been in Europe during the Nazi era.
Grosz had consigned each of the paintings to Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who was forced to flee Berlin in 1933. One work, Bildnis Max Herrmann-Neisse, was later acquired in Berlin by Charlotte Weidler, who sold it to the museum in 1952 after coming to New York.
Another picture, Maler und Modell, also consigned to Galerie Alfred Flechtheim, had been taken by the dealer when he fled to Paris. In 1936 he gave it to Van Lier Kunstzaal, an Amsterdam gallery, for a Grosz exhibition, according to information in the Grosz catalogue raisonné. Flechtheim died in 1937.
The next year Maler und Modell was among 24 Grosz paintings and 47 works on paper given by Van Lier to the Amsterdam auction house Mak van Waay. The gallery purchased Maler und Modell along with other Grosz works at that auction. The painting was then sold twice—most recently in 1945 in Amsterdam to the family of Leo Lionni, who later donated it to the museum.
Another Grosz work from the 1938 auction, Zeitideen, 1929, was recovered in 2002. It was claimed after being offered for sale at Sotheby’s. An agreement, under which Zeitideen was restituted to the Grosz estate, was reached with the consignor.
Grosz, a leading painter, draftsman and illustrator, left Germany for the United States in January 1933, when he was 39—just weeks before the new Nazi regime vilified him as “cultural Bolshevik No. 1” and raided his home and studio in Berlin. The Nazis’ 1937 exhibition in Munich of “degenerate art” featured five Grosz oils, two watercolors and various prints. During the Nazi era some 285 Grosz works would be removed from German museums.
The artist, who taught at New York’s Art Students League for more than two decades, never claimed the paintings from MoMA. However, after learning of MoMA’s acquisition of Bildnis Max Herrmann-Neisse, he wrote, in a January 1953 letter to his brother-in-law Otto Schmalhausen: “The Modern Museum exhibited a painting that was stolen from me (I’m powerless against it); they bought it from someone who stole it.”
Grosz returned to Berlin to live in 1959. He died early that July, shortly before his 66th birthday and a month after going home.