March 28, 2014

UK's Spoliation Advisory Panel Recommends Tate Gallery Return Oil Painting by John Constable, 'Beaching a Boat, Brighton' to the Heirs of Hungarian Baron

Disputed painting: Constable's 'Beaching a Boat, Brighton'
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor, the website for The Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945, posted "UK Spoliation Panel agrees return of Constable painting from the Tate to the Heirs of the Hungarian Owner" on March 26:
The UK Spoliation Panel today published its long awaited report on the claim for 'Beaching a Boat, Brighton' by John Constable, currently in the Tate Gallery, which acquired it in 1966. The painting, which belonged to a Hungarian collector, was lost in 1945 together with the rest of his extensive art collection. (To read the provenance of the painting, published on this site since 2001, click here.)
Here's the information that Looted Art has posted since 2001:
Provenance: Miss Isabel Constable. Dowdeswell collection, London. Auction, Christie’s, London, 1892. Cheramy collection, Paris. Cheramy collection, Paris, auction, Georges Petit, Paris, 1908, No. 19, p. 20.+ Baron Ferenc Hatvany (rightful owner), by whom purchased at auction, 1908 (No. 52). Deposited at the Hungarian General Credit Bank, Chest No. IV or V, under the name János Horváth, 1942. Taken by the Soviet Economic Officers’ Commission, 1945. 
Additional Information: “Baron Ferenc Hatvany (who was of Jewish extraction) was the most famous Hungarian art collector of his time. His collection was one of the finest in Budapest, although not the largest, comprising as it did only some 750-800 works of art. The collection belonging to Baron Herzog was appreciably larger, with 2000-2500 pieces. Ferenc Hatvany (1881-1958) died abroad. He studied as a painter under the Hungarian artists Ármin Glatter and Sándor Bihari at the artists' colony at Szolnok, and later under Jean-Paul Lurens in Paris, at the Julian Academy. The artists he most admired were Ingres and Chasseriau. As an art collector active between about 1905 and 1942, he purchased mainly masterpieces by 19th-century French painters. The great collection has become dispersed. Some works were taken from banks by the Red Army, and others from the Hatvany house by the SS officers Wilcke, Glasen and Keppler. Baron Hatvany was a generous patron of public collections in Hungary. His home - a villa which formerly belonged to Menyhért Lónyay (a prime minister of Hungary in the period of dualism) - was an elegant building designed by the fine architect Miklós Ybl.” See Sacco di Budapest, p. 223
The Spoliation Advisory Panel "resolves claims from people, or their heirs, who lost property during the Nazi era, which is now held in UK national collections." Here is their March 26 report, REPORT OF THE SPOLIATION ADVISORY PANEL IN RESPECT OF AN OIL PAINTING BY JOHN CONSTABLE, ‘BEACHING A BOAT, BRIGHTON’, NOW IN THE POSSESSION OF THE TATE GALLERY" under the name of The Honourable Sir Donnell Deeny. It is noted that the panel did not specifically identify the "heirs of the Hungarian art collector" filing the claim against the Tate Gallery which opposed restitution (Introduction, Paragraph 1). Excerpts from the report:
5. John Constable (1776-1837) composed the Painting as a sketch in oil on paper laid on canvas during one of his first visits to Brighton, in 1824. The dimensions are approximately 26 x 30 cm. He later used some motifs from it for a larger painting, the Chain Pier, also in Tate Britain. 
6. The Painting was inherited by Constable’s daughter Isabel, who died in 1888. It was sold at Christie’s in 1892 to Walter Dowdeswell, a London art dealer. Dowdeswell sold it on to P. A. Chéramy in 1902, who brought it to auction at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris in May 1908, when it was purchased by the Collector. 
7. The Collector was a well-known Hungarian artist and connoisseur, whose family had amassed considerable wealth through banking and industrial activities in the nineteenth century. The Collector’s life and work have been the subject of several scholarly articles, listed by the Claimants. His collection focused in particular on French artists of the nineteenth century. 
8. The Collector, as noted, purchased the Painting at auction in Paris in 1908. The purchase was documented in an article in Der Kunstsammler: Organ fur den Internationalen Kunstmarkt, 1908 by R.A. Meyer. It is not contested by the Tate. The Painting was briefly confiscated by the Hungarian state during the Communist revolution of 1919 but returned to the Collector after the revolution was suppressed. It was inventorized in 1924 and again in 1926. 
9. The Collector, who was of Jewish origin but had converted to Christianity prior to his marriage, managed to preserve his possessions and his property, principally a palatial house in Buda and a castle in the countryside, during the increasingly antisemitic atmosphere in Hungary in the late 1930s. As an ally of Nazi Germany, Hungary began to be exposed to Allied bombing raids in 1942, and the Collector, like many others, deposited most of his artworks in bank vaults in Budapest. It is not clear, however, whether the Painting was among these artworks, or whether it remained at one of the Collector’s properties, and if so, at which one. 
10. In March 1944, when Hungary threatened to terminate its alliance with Nazi Germany, the Germans invaded, and the Collector, using false papers, went into hiding in the countryside, where he remained until the Russian liberation of Hungary in February 1945. His properties were confiscated, and contemporary witness accounts noted German military trucks being loaded with effects from the castle and being driven away. Meanwhile, some 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and met their deaths there.
11. On its conquest of Budapest in February 1945, the Red Army conducted widespread looting of private property in the city, and, with the aid of some of its inhabitants, opened the bank vaults and carried away numerous paintings, including, according to eyewitness accounts, at least two owned by the Collector. However, there is also testimony to the effect that the vaults had already been opened by the Germans before the Red Army arrived. In any event, when he came out of hiding in March 1945, the Collector found his properties and his bank vaults empty apart from one very large painting by Courbet. 
12. Between 1946 and 1948 the Collector managed to repurchase a number of his works of art from a Soviet officer, not including the Constable Painting, which was still missing. The new Hungarian Ministry of Culture’s Commission for Artworks Looted from Public and Private Art Collections, which operated between those years, listed the Painting as number 768 on its register and recorded that it had previously been owned by the Collector. Further crates of artworks located by the Commission did not include the Painting. 
13. After the Communist takeover of Hungary in the late 1940s, the Collector and his family emigrated, taking some of their art collection with them. He died in 1958, after having sold some of his paintings in order to fund the family’s living expenses. The Constable Painting was not recorded as being among these artworks, nor did it resurface in any of the Soviet collections containing looted artworks. 
14. The Painting is recorded as being sold by a Mr. Meyer to the Leger Galleries in London in January 1962, who sold it on to the Broadway Art Gallery in Broadway, Worcestershire, where it was bought in February 1962 by Mrs. P. M. Rainsford. In 1985 she approached the Tate with a view to donating the Painting, and it was accepted by the Board of Trustees on 17 January 1986. Since that time it has been in the possession of the Tate. 
15. On 16 April 2012 the Claimants notified the Tate of their intention to bring a claim for the restitution of the Painting. The Claimants’ legal representative and a representative of the Commission for Art Recovery met with representatives of the Tate on 30 May 2012. The claim was submitted to the Panel on 18 April 2013.his family emigrated, taking some of their art collection with them. He died in 1958, after having sold some of his paintings in order to fund the family’s living expenses. The Constable Painting was not recorded as being among these artworks, nor did it resurface in any of the Soviet collections containing looted artworks.
THE TATE’S CASE General argument 
31. The Tate argues that it is unreasonable to demand that it should have carried out provenance research at a time when Holocaust issues were not prominent in the art world. It denies that it has withheld relevant documentation from the Claimants. Far from being of major emotional significance to the Collector and his heirs, the Tate argues that the Painting was, as an English work of art, an anomaly in his otherwise almost exclusively French collection. For this reason, indeed, the Tate considers that it is possible that the Collector disposed of it voluntarily through sale or donation in his lifetime, as he did with some other works from his collection. The Tate adds that the fact that the Claimants have sold another important painting that was returned to them suggests that the value they place on the Painting is financial, not emotional. Other items from the collection would be more appropriate as symbolic reparation for the family’s sufferings during the war, which in any case, the Claimants pointed out, were not as severe as those of other Hungarian Jews until a late stage of the war. On the other hand, the Painting is of particular importance to the Tate as the major national repository of Constable’s work. On the basis of this argument, the Tate contends that even if the Panel does consider some form of redress to be appropriate, that redress should take the form of a money payment or commemoration of the history of the Painting, rather than the restitution of the Painting itself. The Painting therefore should remain in the possession of the Tate.
40. The Tate concedes that in 2001, a researcher noticed the gap in the Painting’s provenance, including World War II, but “a decision was taken to prioritise other cases on art historical grounds”. The reason why the Painting was not included in the Tate’s List of works with incomplete provenance during the period 1933-1945 is that research on works dating from the period 1780 to 1860 had not yet been carried out, though it was in train.
THE PANEL’S CONCLUSIONS Ownership and significance of the Painting 
42. Although there are gaps and contradictions in the documentary record, the likelihood is that the Painting remained in the Collector’s possession until it was looted by the Germans in 1944 or early 1945. If it had been looted by the Red Army, it would more likely have come to light in the Soviet Union rather than being brought onto the Western European art market. The Tate itself concedes that there is no positive indication that the Collector disposed of it voluntarily, and, in connection with the issue of legal title, also makes the valid point that such issues have to be decided not on the provision of documentary proof that would provide certainty, but on the balance of probabilities. The Panel’s Constitution and Terms of Reference require it to ‘evaluate, on the balance of probability, the validity of the claimant’s original title to the object, recognising the difficulties of proving such title after the destruction of the Second World War and the Holocaust’. The documentation cited by the Claimants is extensive. All of the Collector’s donations are well documented and none includes the Painting. Nowhere is there any suggestion that the Painting was not in the Collector’s possession at the beginning of 1944. The Panel concludes that the balance of probability comes down on the side of the Collector having been in possession of the Painting until it was looted following the German invasion of Hungary in 1944. 
43. The Panel accepts the evidence presented by the Claimants as to the persecution and maltreatment of the Collector and his family following the German invasion of Hungary in 1944. However, neither the general persecution suffered by the Jewish community of Hungary in 1944/45 nor the particular suffering of the Collector and his family is directly relevant to the issue before the Panel, whose Constitution and Terms of Reference require it to give weight to the moral strength of the Claimants’ case on the basis of the circumstances under which they were deprived of the Painting, whether by theft, forced sale, sale at an undervalue, or otherwise. The Panel is not empowered to make recommendations for “symbolic restitution” on the sole grounds of the suffering of former owners. 
44. After carefully examining the art historical significance of the Painting, the Panel concludes that it was not an anomaly in the original collection. Constable was regarded as a forerunner of the Impressionists, and his paintings have been exhibited alongside theirs. The Tate’s own catalogue description of the Painting stresses this relationship, thus suggesting why the Collector acquired it as “one of the finest oil sketches by Constable then on the Continent, at a time when he was being hailed as a father figure of modern painting”. It anticipated Courbet’s marine paintings and gave “indications of everything that Manet brought into the same domain”. There is no particular reason, therefore, why the Collector should have disposed of the Painting before 1944; rather the contrary. 
45. The Panel accepts the Tate’s argument that the Painting does not possess in and of itself a particular emotional and personal significance for the Claimants, except as part of the original collection. However, the emotional significance of an object to a claimant is only one factor to be taken into account in determining whether or not to recommend restitution, though it might be relevant to the moral strength of the claim. The central issues are the strength of the moral claim and the moral obligations of the institution. 
46. Similarly, the importance of a spoliated object to a national collection is not a paramount consideration in the Panel’s view. If it were, the very principle of the restitution of important works would be called into question.
60. Taking into account all the above circumstances, the Panel concludes that the moral strength of the Claimants’ case, and the moral obligation on the Tate, warrant a recommendation that Beaching a Boat, Brighton, by John Constable, should be returned by the Tate to the Claimants as they desire, in accordance with the provisions of The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 and subject to the conditions outlined in paragraphs 54 and 55 above. The Panel recommends accordingly. In accordance with its earlier decisions the Panel considers that no reimbursement is due from the Claimants to the Tate for its expenditure as that is broadly balanced by income received and by the benefit that Tate and the public have derived from the work over the last four decades.
Judge Arthur Tompkins, who will be returning to Amelia to teach ARCA's Art in War course during the summer, commented that this news is important for two wider reasons, over and above the good news of the return of a looted artwork.
First, it is an illustration of the importance, when deciding what is to happen to a looted or plundered artwork, that account is taken not only of the legalities of the claim on both sides, in terms of evidence of loss and as questions of ownership and title, but also the moral dimensions, as they relate to the claim as advanced by the claimant and to the circumstances in which the present owner came into possession of the artwork. The United Kingdom's Spoliation Panel is required to weigh both the legal and the moral aspects when deciding a claim. The German Federal Government, when deciding the fate of the very many artworks found in the possession of Herr Gurlitt in Munich (for recent news concerning this, see this article in The New York Times and this article on the BBC News ), might learn much from the hybrid jurisdiction exercised by the Spoliation Panel. Secondly, this case shows yet again that resolving the myriad and sometimes difficult issues raised by the Nazi-era Looting and plundering of art continues to be a live issue today, an issue that is a real and continuing challenge that museums, galleries and other institutions should and must confront on an ongoing basis, rather than thinking of such cases as one-off, isolated and historical problems which only crop up now and again. It points up the need for permanent, properly-resourced provenance research work to be just as much an integral part of the day to day operations of institutions as paying the utilities bills, cataloging holdings and mounting exhibitions are.


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