LACMA Gets Baroque Masterpiece – formerly Nazi Loot – UPDATED
SEE UPDATE AFTER ORIGINAL POST
ORIGINAL POST: Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has an amazing story about a Bernardo Strozzi painting, St. Catherine of Alexandria, that has recently been donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). According to Knight: [The] Nazi-looted Baroque masterpiece … turned up on the art market five years ago [and] was returned Friday to its owner.” Here are some of the many interesting highlights:
The restitution of the Strozzi by an Italian court was made to Philippa Calnan, the original owner’s sole direct descendant. Calnan, a retired public affairs director at LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Trust, is making the gift to the museum.
The painting is among Strozzi’s supreme early achievements. It disappeared after the 1943 Nazi occupation of Florence, one of nearly a dozen works stolen from the collection assembled by Charles A. Loeser, an American expatriate and heir to a Brooklyn department store fortune. Loeser moved to Italy in 1890 and died in 1928.
Sotheby’s was approached about accepting the painting for auction, but research into its provenance, or history of ownership, identified its status as Nazi plunder. The auction house notified Italian police and contacted Calnan, Loeser’s granddaughter.
The painting had by then been jointly bought by Marco Voena and Fabrizio Moretti, Old Master art dealers with galleries in Milan, Florence, London and New York. Calnan was blocked by the Italian courts from obtaining an export license for what was deemed a national treasure. She appealed the ruling.
The Strozzi is one of two Loeser works looted by the Nazis to resurface. Last year, a gold-ground Sienese devotional altar by the Master of the Richardson Triptych (circa 1370-1415) [below] was retrieved by the FBI from Moretti’s Manhattan gallery. Like the Strozzi, it was listed in the Lost Art database. In excellent condition given its age and tumultuous history, “The Virgin and Child Enthroned With Angels and Saints, the Redeemer and the Annunciation” is also on loan to LACMA.
UPDATE: The two art dealers from whom the painting was confiscated – Marco Voena and Fabrizio Moretti – have responded by email to the Los Angeles Times’ request for comment. First, it’s unfortunate that it took a couple of days to get a response. Second, the response provided by Voena on behalf of himself and Moretti doesn’t address the extent of their due diligence (or if it does, it was not included in the follow up article). The Los Angeles Times reports: “Voena said that the pair had acquired the painting “in good faith” in 2006 from Open Care, a company in Milan that offers art-related services, including appraisals, storage and restoration. The price was 450,000 euros, the equivalent of about $611,000 today.” When the pair tried to auction the painting through Sotheby’s in 2009, the auction house quickly determined the painting was looted. What due diligence did the two pursue? When acquiring works do they check them against databases of looted and stolen art? The article includes the following:
Voena said that the dealers’ joint acquisition of the painting took place when “restitution issues were very much in their infancy. There may already have been such issues in Germany and the Netherlands and the northern countries generally, but Italy seemed to be completely out of the loop, presumably as very little looting had taken place in the first place.”
“Restitution issues” were not “in their infancy” in 2006 – far from it. Moreover, the painting was listed on the Lost Art Internet Database, founded in 1994. Calling into question “restitution issues” does these dealers a disservice. It would be better for these dealers to describe how they vet material before they buy it, and use this experience to educate their clients and colleagues, and collectors generally, about the need for proper documentation. In addition, what about Open Care, the organization from which the men purchased the Strozzi? Where did they get the painting? What do we know about their due diligence? Have they been associated with any other similarly problematic works? Finally, what are the responsibilities of buyers and sellers?