Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

November 19, 2020

"Provenance Research Today" book release to debut at the International Catalogue Raisonné Association conference


On December 3rd a new book called Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems is being released by Lund Humphries, an independent imprint which publishes books on art, architecture, and design.  The book is divided into five sections with articles written by 20 contributors including book editor Judge Arthur Tompkins.  Judge Tompkins is a District Court Judge based in Wellington, New Zealand.  This is the third book he has worked on with Lund Humphries, the first being Art Crime and Its Prevention: A Handbook for Collectors which he also edited, and his own book, Plundering Beauty all of which deal with the subjects of art, crime, and plunder.  

Judge Tompkins was nice enough to talk with us about this upcoming book, giving us some further insight into the topic of provenance research.  We first asked what brought about the desire to develop a book on the topic of provenance; he stated that the idea first began during the process of writing his book Plundering Beauty saying that his research “triggered a realisation that the 'social life' of an artwork - where it had been, who had had it, how it got to where it now is, and all the twists and turns along the way - is always an unavoidably intrinsic part of a work of art, and cannot properly be ignored or overlooked when looking at or discussing or researching a work.”  

The first two sections of the book will delve into the ‘History, Purpose, and Challenges of Provenance Research’ and ‘Best Practices in Provenance Research’.  One of the challenges of provenance research today is that in the past it was often unnecessary, or even undesired, to ask for provenance details in the art world, and as such large institutions and collectors have many pieces with no known history.  

Building a provenance from nothing is a daunting prospect and the advice Judge Tompkins gives to institutions wishing to fill in the blanks in their collections is simply to “do the work!  Go down into the basements and the storage rooms and the off-site warehouses and blow the dust off and open the files, open the cupboards, pull out the drawers to see what's there, and then sit down and work out how it got there ... But I understand entirely that limited and stretched budgets, and limited time, conspire to make that difficult. Good provenance work is careful, detailed, painstaking, and time-consuming, and diverts resources of all kinds from other compelling demands on those same scarce resources.”  The difficulties of solving the mystery behind long-held pieces of art often fall secondary to the more pressing concerns of new acquisitions.   

The third section of the book discusses ‘Provenance Research, Museums, and the Art Market’.  The topic of proper provenance research and the art market is still a controversial issue.  Many auction houses do not require provenance history for their pieces.  We asked Judge Tompkins what he felt could be done to encourage better practice from institutions in this field.  His advice was directed towards buyers and collectors as he asks them to “ignore pieces offered for sale without a full and proper provenance.  If such offerings are publicly highlighted and appropriately criticized, and then remain unsold (if not pulled from sale before being offered), then gradually vendors will be compelled both to research their own holdings and to make provenances public.”  At the end of the day, the disapproval of the academic community will not mean as much to them as the loss of income from suspect pieces with no previous collection history, that buyers walk away from. 

The final two sections deal with two of the areas which are most complex to deal with in the world of provenance research today: ‘Nazi-era Provenance Research’ and ‘Provenance Research and the Illicit Antiquities Trade’.  We asked Judge Tompkins to elaborate on the issues faced with provenance research in these areas.  He explained that “with respect to Nazi-era issues, the relentless march of times inevitably obscures or conceals a lot of evidence, and institutional inertia (or an unwillingness substantively to confront and acknowledge a tragic past, although that is slowly changing) often compounds the problems.”  

The issues faced with the illicit antiquities trade are very different, he explained that “with respect to antiquities, any form of provenance is often completely missing, especially for plundered and smuggled antiquities deriving from looted archaeological sites, including graves, in war zones or areas of conflict.”  The end goal of provenance research in these two scenarios is often the restitution of the items to their proper owners, heirs, or country of origin.  

Because of Judge Tompkins’ legal expertise, we asked him what he felt was the biggest legal gap needed to overcome with regards to restitution.  He responded that “the irreconcilable inconsistency between how (to adopt a very broad generalisation) the common law and civil law worlds treat prior ownership and/or possession of a stolen work.  The common law world (including the USA, the UK, and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) generally rule that a thief cannot convey good title, no matter what happens after the theft, whereas the civil law world (most of Europe and other Napoleonic Code countries) say that a genuine and honest subsequent buyer can get good title, despite an original theft.  Given that most legal issues involving an artwork have to be resolved in the national courts of the place where that artwork ends up, that can often be an insurmountable legal hurdle for a claimant to overcome - even if they know an artwork has ended up there, in the first place, which is often down to sheer luck.”  The process of restitution of artworks is long and complicated and continues to be an important topic of discussion in the art world.  

This book release coincides with the International Catalogue Raisonné Association’s annual conference on the 3rd of December which will feature a series of lectures on the topic of Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.  Given the current pandemic, the conference will be held virtually this year and includes presentations from twenty-one leading scholars and experts from around the world.  


The program will run from 10:30 AM to 6:30 PM CET with sessions on various topics including: A How-to Guide to Research Techniques, Restitution: Research Questions and Perspectives, the Legal, Moral and Ethical Implications of Provenance Research, Provenance in Museums, Artists’ Estates and their Approach to Provenance, and the Future of Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.  Tickets for the event are available through Eventbrite for £100, this fee is waived for ICRA members, students, and the unemployed.


Link to purchase book: Provenance Research Today.
 

Link to the book's Table of Contents.

Link to the ICRA Event info for: Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.

By: Lynette Turnblom

November 8, 2019

Book Review – Females in the Frame, Women, Art and Crime

Guest Blog post by: Dr. Catherine Gardner

Penelope Jackson wrote this book as a result of a challenge unwittingly thrown down by Dr Noah Chaney. He somewhat naively noted in his 2015 book The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers “there is a decided lack of female forgers in this book; there are female accomplices and con men, but I know of no notable forgers in the history of forgery”.  This motivated Jackson to investigate further the role women play (have played) in art crime.  The result of her research is this easy to read book. 

Penelope Jackson is an Art Historian and is the author of: Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story (2016).  The offenders in this book are all men apart from one female thief who somewhat brazenly stole a piece of art from an exhibition in a small Otago town.  Jackson noted that the only other women in the book were at the receiving end of art crime. In Females in the Frame she wanted to uncover not only other roles women took in art crime but also try and understand their reasons for doing it.  For me, the why is often more interesting than the how.

One of the first things that you will notice (well I did anyway) is the depth of the research that Jackson has done for this book. In some instances, she has given institutions information about their artwork that they were unaware of.  In her way Jackson has added to the history of these artworks.

Jackson has given each chapter a theme which provides a useful cohesion to the book. These chapters are essentially case studies on the women involved.  I believe this makes the book more relatable as it brings the characters to life.  The chapters give examples of women who have destroyed art  (chapter 2 – Lady Destroyers), mothers who have protected their art criminal sons (chapter 3 – The Mother of All Art Crimes), women who have vandalised art (chapter 4 – She Vandals), women who conned artists and clients (chapter 5 - The Art of the Con(Wo)man), women who stole art works (chapter 6 - The Light Fingered),  forged art (chapter 7 - Naming Rights), those who used their professional positions to commit white collar crime (chapter 8 – The professionals) and her concluding chapter (chapter 9 – Afterword: Making a Noise about the Silence).

Jackson goes into detail in her chapters about the women who did what they did and why.  She has sympathy for some of the actions such as the Suffragettes who destroyed paintings rather than hurt people to highlight the inequity of women in society. Although the cause for women’s right to vote is a just one there is an overarching sadness in terms of artwork that has been lost due to vandalism, destruction or theft. Another example is of the Russian woman who stole from her work to pay for diabetes medication. Something I can’t imagine ever having to do living in my comfortable world but once again, I get a feeling of sadness and disappointment by Jackson who is fiercely protective of art works.   

She does save some particular ire for Clementine Churchill.  Jackson spends a considerable amount of time discussing Clementine Churchill’s alleged penchant for destroying unflattering portraits (according to her) of her husband.  One such painting was commissioned by the House of Commons and the House of Lords after the sum of 1000 guineas was raised.  This painting was to celebrate Churchill's 80th birthday.  The chosen artist was celebrated portraitist Graham Sutherland and the painting was unveiled at a televised event, meaning, thankfully, that there are photos of the painting. This painting was a gift from the nation but also to the nation of a highly regarded public figure. The story (in fact Jackson gives four possible accounts of its demise) is that Clementine did not like the portrait, that she believed it to be an unflattering likeness of Churchill and organised for it to be destroyed.  Arguably it showed him perfectly, quite possibly how everyone remembers him, stubborn, unbending and resolute, not to mention 80 years old.   Jackson rightly argues that this was never her painting to destroy.  This painting belonged to the people of Great Britain.  Likewise, Jackson asks the question about who truly has authority, ownership or the right to destroy any of these artworks.  

This segues rather nicely into the case studies of women protecting their art criminal sons and the lengths they would take to protect them, including the heart-breaking destruction of many irreplaceable pieces. Jackson is forever trying to understand why the women did as they did and explores the psychology behind their actions as well.  I believe this adds another layer of richness to the book.

Jackson also discusses where artwork has been accidently damaged by cleaners or more intriguingly or perhaps tragically by amateur restorers.  She highlights the work by two well-meaning but ultimately hopeless (that word might be too strong) women who did irreparable damage to very old and sacred work.  They meant well but there is a reason why such work is left to the professionals. In my view, the results were criminal and perhaps did more damage than any criminal/vandal could have done.

Another very interesting story that Jackson writes about is the case of an Australian woman, an acclaimed artist, who decided one day to paint under a nom de brush.  That in itself was not an issue, but it was the fact that she took on the name and persona of an aboriginal man and began to paint in an obvious aboriginal style that is the problem.  Add to that her total lack of understanding why a white, middle class woman pretending to be an aboriginal man might be offensive.  

Jackson’s book also sets the story straight on a few myths.  The belief that the novelist Patricia Cornwell destroyed a painting just to get DNA from the artist is debunked by setting out the facts of what happened. Likewise, in her final chapter she also sets the record straight on the film, The Monuments Men and separates the truth from the Hollywood version. This brings me to my favourite moment in the book, the story of Rose Valland (played by Cate Blanchett in the movie The Monuments Men).  As Jackson says the film should be called The Monuments Men and Women but Hollywood never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  It is this section in the book (in my view) that sums up so much of what Jackson is trying to highlight.   

Rose Valland (inter-alia) was responsible for saving and recovering many works of art that the Nazis tried to pilfer during world war two.  She put her life on the line so that these works could be recovered.  Rather than focusing on this remarkable act of bravery and the fact that she was a well-qualified art historian there seems to be more attention placed on how she looked; “plain looking, and plainly dressed” or described as; “a mousy little spinster” (with nerves of tungsten).  Jackson talks more than once about gendered language in her book and comments on the way in which women are portrayed in the media versus men.  

Jackson has written an accessible book that takes the reader on a journey into the world of art and crime and women.  She attempts to understand why the women did as they did as well as trying to redress the balance in how women are portrayed in print.  It is evident that Jackson has a real love of art and the overriding message for me was the need to protect and look after all art so that future generations can experience these marvellous works. 

March 4, 2018

Art Crime Book Review: Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War

 Book Title: Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War
Author: Arthur Tompkins

Publisher: Lund Humphries, March 2018
Book Reviewer: Penelope Jackson

The cover says it all.  A lone American soldier is dwarfed by the surrounding stash of bundles, that look suspiciously like paintings, in a church at the Weissenburg-Guzenhausen Residence at Ellingen, Germany, in 1945. The juxtaposition of the church’s lavish interior - used as storage for plundered art - with the soldier is a poignant reminder of the scale of wartime seizures and the enormity of a problem that is as old as art itself and continues to the present day.  This image is on the cover of Arthur Tompkins’ Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War, an epic read about the victims of war, art and cultural heritage.

Many readers will personally know, or know of Arthur Tompkins, for his scholarship about art crime during war.  For several years Tompkins has taught at home (New Zealand) and abroad through the ARCA postgraduate program in art crime and cultural heritage protection (Italy) on this topic and his latest book brings together years of research, thought, and analysis about the art crimes committed during war. 

Plundering Beauty is a long journey of crimes waged on art.  Beginning with exploring the nuances of why art crimes are committed during war, Tompkins embarks on a journey beginning 2000 years ago in Rome.  Bit by bit, he un-packages this history of atrocities inflicted on art, both individual pieces as well as collections.  Significant (and now famous because of their chequered past) artworks have always been pawns in much bigger context of war booty and in Plundering Beauty we are presented case after case as evidence of this.  

Plundering Beauty’s catalogue of art crimes continues through to the present day, and not surprisingly, demonstrates the failure of humankind to learn from earlier histories.  We are familiar with the crimes committed in present-day Syria and Iraq, and Tompkins’ book is a brutal reminder of these as he provides us with a much wider and broader context, and specific art and cultural object crimes.  

Plundering Beauty does not pretend to be a complete history of art crimes committed during war (I couldn’t help but think while reading this new narrative about all the art crimes committed during war that we do not know about, or have an inkling of but do not know the details of).  What Tompkins does provide us with is a cross-section of case studies over time.  Wherever there is an art history there is a history of art crime and more often than not, crimes that are bound up in war.  Tompkins provides an alternative art history that for so long was ignored by writers.  

I get the sense that Tompkins has his clear favourites, and why shouldn’t he?  He is passionate about his subject matter and it shows.  The Four Horses of the Basilica of St Mark and Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana are up there.  It is not always about the actual artwork being discussed but rather the back-stories and layers of unravelling necessary to try and see reasons for such crimes.  Discussed in detail, yet in a very readable manner, Tompkins’ attention to detail and leaving no stone unturned is in part due to his day job – a judge.  And as the reader you feel satisfied with how he presents each case.  

A reminder though, is that this a book about crime, and as always with crime, not all cases are solved.  For example, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man sadly remains at large.  Other artworks are re-discovered or have closure many years after the original crime.  Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a case in point.  The work, seized by the Nazis during World War II was eventually reunited with the owner’s heirs in 2006 after what Tompkins describes as a tortuous legal battle fought in both Austria and the United States.

The narrative is chronological making it easier to align with world history and art history, as written in the Western tradition.  Plundering Beauty also reveals the unfair nature of art crimes during war.  Take Johannes Vermeer for instance.  He only painted approximately 35 works total during his entire working career and yet three feature in this book.  Perhaps this is because they’re stunning works, much adored and highly desirable.  It could be that they are small and therefore easy to plunder.  Tompkins inspires his reader to ruminate on such matters, meaning the book’s contents stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.  

Illustrated with 52 colour images, Plundering Beauty is well presented.  Tompkins, with his usual vigour (he’s also an endurance athlete) and rigour, has produced a book that is both a scholarly volume and is very accessible for those uninitiated about art crime.  Collectively, wartime art crimes are colossal, seen in the evidence set out clearly in Plundering Beauty.  As Tompkins eloquently notes in his introduction:

The stories of the crimes committed against art during war, the saving and return of art after long and unforeseen journeys, and the villains and the heroes of those episodes, are the stories that Plundering Beauty tells. (p.13)

The irony in the title’s principal words, Plundering Beauty, is very purposeful; that humankind has victimised their most precious objects in a variety of ways for centuries, and continue to do so, should be a universal lesson going forward. Underpinning most publications about art crime in recent years are strategies around curbing art crimes, present and future.  Tompkins joins this tradition when he laments in his final sentence in relation to Iraq and Syria,

But sadly the raging assault on the world’s art and cultural heritage during war continues. (p.168)

November 21, 2016

Book Review: Portraits of Pretence by Susan Grossey

Book 4 in the Sam Plank Mystery Series
Author:  Susan Grossey

Review by:  Arthur Tompkins

Constable Sam Plank is a magistrate’s constable in seventeenth century Regency London. In Portraits of Pretence (available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon) the fourth Sam Plank novel, Susan Grossey weaves an elegant and polished tale of art crime, forgery, falsified provenance, smuggling, clandestine collecting, dubious art dealers and untimely death, all against a backdrop of the evocative sights, sounds, smells and ambience of crowded and bustling Regency London.

Susan Grossey is, by day, a specialist in combating money laundering, and also the author of the (now) four Sam Plank mysteries (her Amazon author’s page can be found here). In Constable Sam Plank she has created a gentle, thoughtful, careful, indomitable and very likeable investigator of crime in the heart of England’s great capital.  In the first three Sam Plank novels, Sam tackled financial forgery and bank fraud (Fatal Forgery, set in 1824), investment fraud (The Man in the Canary Waistcoat, set in 1825) and blackmail and corruption (Worm in the Blossom, set in 1826). This time around, it is the spring of 1827 and Sam is plunged into the art market and the criminal dishonesty that swirls in and around it in post-Napoleonic England and Europe. An elderly French artist is found dead, clutching an exquisite miniature painted on ivory in his hand.  The trail leads through the vaults under the then newly-built Customs House in riverside London, visits to the blockade-men stationed in Kent, and in and out of various salubrious and not-so salubrious rooms of artists and dealers in London.

Constable Plank is ably assisted in his investigation, as he was in his earlier outings, by his indomitable and perceptive wife, Martha, his able and swift-to-learn (although not always, in matters of the heart) junior constable William, and a widening circle of memorable supporting characters – some based on historical figures, others plausible and fascinating characters circulating in the milieu of a London bursting at the seams and flexing its commercial, financial and international muscle as it enters the period when Great Britain would dominate the known world.

Ms Grossey is meticulous in her research. Her characters’ language, the streets and the buildings they inhabit, and the street-level topography of central London they walk by day and by night, are a delight. To read the story is to live in the streets of a London on the brink of global greatness, thronged by a deeply rich tapestry of life’s all-too-human variety.  The tone of the novel and the writing throughout is eminently readable and light-handed (a not inconsiderable authorial achievement), and briskly-paced.

The historical background is accurate, but not overpowering – personally I liked the passing and accurate references to the historical development of the protection and repatriation of cultural property plundered in war, and various facets of art crime itself. The many manifestations of art crime that Sam encounters are illuminating, especially for students of contemporary art crime, who will quickly realise that nothing that lies beneath the glittering surface of today’s art world is new, and that the same dark currents twisted and ran riot two centuries ago just as they do now.

Three more Sam Plank mysteries are scheduled, the next one due out (a reliable source tells me) in October 2018...

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Arthur Tompkins is a sitting District Court Judge based in Wellington and one of the founders of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust.  For 8 years now he has taught the Art in War course module for the annual Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Heritage Protection presented by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art in Amelia, Umbria, Italy. He has lectured around New Zealand and abroad on art crime, and is a regular art-crime guest on Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning show on National Radio.

September 20, 2016

New Art Crime Book: Art Thieves, Fakers & Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story

Do you happen to know the whereabouts of Psyche? Its the painting that graces this cover of the new Awa Press book:  Art Thieves, Fakers & Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story? 

The publisher asks, because it went missing 74 years ago from Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch, and has never been seen again.

Psyche was a massive turn-of-the-century work painted by British artist Solomon J. Solomon. It had been torn from its gilt frame. An inspection of the building found wax matches on the floor. Some window catches had been tampered with and a glass pane broken.

Yet there seemed no possible way thieves could have got the painting out of the gallery and through the locked gates of the surrounding Botanic Gardens.

Was it an inside job? A wartime prank by visiting US servicemen? A phantom operating through a locked skylight?

The Psyche mystery is just one of the intriguing stories in Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story

Author Penelope Jackson is an art historian, former director of Tauranga Art Gallery, and founding member of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, set up in 2015.

Lest we think that art theft, faking and forgery are things that happen only in other countries, Jackson's book unveils a catalogue of Kiwi home-grown skulduggery. 

Urewera mural, 1975
Some crimes, such as the heist of the $2 million Colin McCahon Urewera Mural from the visitor centre at Waikaremoana, have made headlines, but others have not been widely publicised by galleries perhaps anxious to not to deter potential donors.

With many valuable art collections hanging in private homes, Jackson also includes timely suggestions on how to ensure artworks don’t disappear out the door, like five much–loved paintings that took flight from an Auckland home twenty-five years ago. They, too, have never been found. 

And if you’re advertising your house for sale on New Zealand's Trade Me, you may want to read this book first.

Take a look at what the academics in the field are saying: 

Release date: October 14, 2016; RRP: $40.00

For a review copy, cover image, extracts, and/or interview with the author, contact Sarah Thornton, sarah.thornton (at) prcomms.com; (09) 479-8763/021 753 744

July 23, 2015

Book Review: Catherine Schofield Sezgin on "The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth" by Ben Macintyre

Catherine Schofield Sezgin reviews "The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth" by Ben Macintyre in the Spring 2015 issue of The Journal of Art Crimeedited by Noah Charney (with Marc Balcells and Christos Tsirogiannis) and published by ARCA:

Ben Macintyre’s 1997 book, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth is written by the journalist who pro- duced Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, an empathetic view of a triple agent during World War II. In the preface, Macintyre explains that he found the story of Worth in the archives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Los Angeles by chance when he saw a 1902 “fragment of a newsprint” from the Sunday Oregonian in Portland that claimed “Adam Worth, Greatest Thief of Modern Times; Stole $3,000,000.”

Macintyre explains: 
The detectives, I soon learned, had hunted Worth across the world for decades with dogged perseverance, and the result was a wealth of documentation: six complete chronological folders, tied together with string and bulging with photographs, letters, newspaper articles, and hundreds of memos by the Pinkerton detectives, each one written in meticulous copperplate and relating a tale even more intriguing and peculiar than the nameless Sunday Oregonian writer had implied.
For Adam Worth, it transpired, was for more than simply a talented crook. A professional charlatan, he was that most feared of Victorian bogeymen: the double man, the charming rascal, the respectable and civilized Dr. Jekyll by day whose villainy emerged only under cover of night. Worth made a myth of his own life, building a thick smokescreen of wealth and possessions to cover a multitude of crimes that had started with picking pockets and desertion and later expanded to include safecracking on an industrial scale, international forgery, jewel theft, and highway robbery. The Worth dossiers revealed a vivid rogues’ gallery of crooks, aristocrats, con men, molls, mobsters, and policeman, all revolving around this singular man. In minute detail the detectives described his criminal network, radi- ating out of Paris and London and stretching from Jamaica to South Africa, from America to Turkey. 
Catherine Schofield Sezgin is editor of the blog for the Association of Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) and a 2009 graduate of its certificate program in International Art Crime. 

Here's a link to ARCA's website about access to The Journal of Art Crime.

July 21, 2015

Book Review: Marc Balcells on "Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice", Edited by Constantine Sandis

Marc Balcells reviews "Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice, Edited by Constantine Sandis" in the Spring 2015 issue of The Journal of Art Crimeedited by Noah Charney (with Marc Balcells and Christos Tsirogiannis) and published by ARCA:

Sadly, a book of cultural heritage ethics is always necessary, it seems. But with the recent events going on in several zones of the globe, an edited collection of essays like this becomes more and more essential and a remainder of both the fragility of cultural heritage and the bestiality that can be inflicted upon it. Thus, departing from a methodology based mostly on case studies, the book has been written by experts coming from different sectors in the field, ranging from academia to lawyers, or from activists to journalists. A complete, detailed list of contributors includes Constantine Sandis, James Fox, Benjamin Ramn, Nira Wickramasinghe, William St Clair, Sudeshna Guha, Geoffrey Scarre, Sir John Boardman, ARCA’s professor Tom Flynn, Sir Mark Jones, Michael F. Brown, Geoffrey Belcher and Marie Cornu.

The book is structured in very marked and clearly distinct blocks. The first one deals with meaning and memory. Sandis’ chapter mostly delineates the field of cultural heritage ethics and raises the very interesting question of whether we can talk about a unified account of what we consider cultural heritage and cultural heritage ethics or not. James Fox, in Chapter Two, and using as a case study the prohibition by FIFA of wearing poppies on English football uniforms in a match against Spain, writes about potent political symbols. Chapter Three, written by Benjamin Ramm, deals with the attacks to- wards the values of shared culture, and how, in this context, the concept of heritage acquires a new meaning. This is, by far, the most theoretical chapter of the whole book.
Marc Balcells is the Associate Editor of The Journal of Art Crime. A Spanish criminologist, he holds degrees in Law, Criminology and Human Sciences, and masters both in Criminal Law, and the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. A Fulbright scholar, he is currently completing his PhD in Criminal Justice at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His research revolves around criminological aspects of archaeological looting, though he has also written about other forms of art crime. He has taught both Criminal Law and Criminology courses as an associate at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain) and is a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Political Science department at John Jay College. He is also a criminal defense attorney whose practice is located in Barcelona.

Here's a link to ARCA's website about access to The Journal of Art Crime.

March 14, 2015

Prize-winning Boston journalist Steve Kurkjian looks at the investigation of the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in his book "Master Thieves"

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Boston journalist Steve Kurkjian, author of another book on the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft  in 1990 ("Master Thieves, Public Affairs), is interviewed by Dan Rea on Nightside. 

The Christian Science Monitor's book editor Majorie Kehe interviews Kurkjian here about his 2015 book.

Art Taylor for The Washington Post includes this in his review of Kurkjian's "Master Thieves":
Kurkjian clearly knows how to work his beat — he won three Pulitzer Prizes while at the Boston Globe. For this book, he interviewed low-level criminals long suspected of the crime and he reached out to mob bosses for answers. And most impressive, he delivers the story of Louis Royce, who discovered the museum’s security lapses while sneaking into the galleries during his troubled teen years. Royce claims that he passed that information along to his criminal connections and that someone picked up his tip and carried out the heist. 
Placing the theft in historical context, Kurkjian charts the evolution of Boston’s gang wars in the 1980s and details how criminals have used stolen art to bargain plea deals. He also looks at the Gardner’s security issues, everything from troubles with the museum’s board to personnel lapses, and he examines failures in the FBI’s treatment of art crimes, building stark comparisons to more-successful European approaches. Notorious gangster Whitey Bulger’s story lurks along the edges of the narrative, and Kurkjian argues that Bulger’s capture in 2011 and the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 provide models for how crowdsourcing might be used to locate the missing Gardner masterpieces. Kurkjian has gathered so much information that explaining the smallest bit of it leads to a spate of cross-references, qualifications and digressions.
William McKeen for the Boston Globe reviews "Master Thieves" here.

And here are previous posts on the ARCA Blog related to Kurkjian's reporting on the still unsolved Boston art theft: "Tip to Authorities ..."; Kurkjian's interview with security guard; and the FBI's awareness campaign.

Kurkjian's book is available in print and can be electronically downloaded on iBooks.

June 3, 2014

Kirsten Hower reviews Rick Gekoski's book "Lost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature" in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime

Rare book dealer Rick Gekoski's published his book on loss in art and literature with Profile Books in 2013. Kirsten Hower, ARCA's Social Networking Correspondent and List-Serve Manager, begins her review:
It starts with the theft of a mysterious smile and ends with the unbuilt architectural wonders of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Rick Gekoski, a rare book dealer and writer, brings together the worlds of art and literature to explore their hidden pasts. Often kept separate when discussing the arts—the exception being illuminated manuscripts—in his book Gekoski groups them together in considering their dark and hidden pasts. There is, understandably, a bias towards literature in the text, but not enough to detract from the tales concerned with works of art. 
“I am anxious about the destruction of the historical record. We live, understand and accumulate a sense of ourselves as a culture through the preservation of the pieces of paper that record what we truly are, and have been.” (p 120) 
Rather than taking a purely academic and stiff approach to recounting the tales of his chosen works of both art and literature, Gekoski instead takes the more passionate and narrative approach of a storyteller chronicling his favourite stories. In this way, Gekoski’s book acts more like an anthology of crime stories rather than a diatribe concerning art crime. The story of each work of art and literature, ranging from the nearly infamous theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Perugia in 1911 to the almost non-existent poem Et Tu, Healy by a very young James Joyce, is told with the detail, suspense, and passion of a novel. Gekoski’s attention to detail and ability to bring each tale to life makes his book an easy and enjoyable read for readers with or without a background in art or literary crime. 
An additional intrigue to this book is Gekoski’s ability to look at the loss of literary works from the perspective of a book lover who is saddened by the cultural loss as well as the rare book dealer who can see the monetary loss of each work. This intriguing dual perspective adds an interesting twist to narratives that could have instead been dripping in patronizing rhetoric; instead, Gekoski’s narration brings both a practical and intimate nature to the tales he recounts. Each of the crimes he recounts carry both of these tones and draw the reader further into the tale.
You may continue reading this review in The Journal of Art Crime by either subscribing through ARCA's website or ordering it through Amazon.com.

June 2, 2014

Marc Balcells reviews "Lost Lives, Lost Art" by Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow in the Spring 2014 issue of ARCA's Journal of Art Crime

Marc Balcells reviews Lost Lives, Lost Art (Vendome 2010) by Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime:
The phenomenon “Monuments Men” has passed, at least cinematographically: it looks like the dust raised by the ‘in favor’ and ‘against’ factions has settled. Yet the topic of WWII restitutions is far from being settled: the Gurlitt trove and the multiple apartments holding a cache of looted art, which unfolded at the same time as the “Monuments Men” momentum, really showed how open and unsolved this issue is. All these cases made me revisit some of the books that I own on the topic, and my attention wandered to Lost Lives, Lost Art by Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow. 
This non-fiction book follows a coffee table format: bigger than a regular book, hardcover, glossy pages and profusely illustrated. The book’s main theme is to chronicle the lives of fifteen prominent Jewish art collectors and how their collections got dispersed during the ascent to power of the Nazi party, and during the war. However, the book does not stop here and depicts the fate of the works of art and the current owners of the pieces: as the reader can imagine, in most of the cases, the art never went back to their owners, and it the object of many legal cases. In that sense, the book has a similar vibe to Hector Feliciano’s The Lost Museum (1995), which one of its parts revolves around five particular cases (the Rothschild collection, the gallery of Paul Rosenberg, the Bernheim-Jeune collection, the David David-Weill collection and the Schloss collection).
You may finish reading this review in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing to it here or ordering it on Amazon.com.

August 18, 2013

Jonathan Keats' "Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art of Our Age" reviewed in The Journal of Art Crime, Spring 2013

Catherine Sezgin reviews Jonathan Keats' Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art of Our Age (Oxford University Press 2013) in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.

Keats, an art critic for San Francisco Magazine who has previously published on art forgery in Art & Antiques, wants to argue that the problem with forgeries is a problem with us: "We need to examine the anxieties that forgeries elicit in us now. We need to compare the shock of getting duped to the cultivated angst evoked by legitimate art, and we need to recognize what the art establishment will never acknowledge: no authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery. Forgers are the foremost artists of our age."

Keats highlights "six modern masters." After World War II, Lothar Malskat, a German restorer, fakes a mural in a damaged 13th century church. In the 1920s, Alceo Dossena, an Italian sculptor, creates antiqued marbles. In the 1930s, Han van Meegeren, a successful Dutch portrait artist, forges six paintings by Vermeer and sells them to the Nazis.

This book review is continued in the ninth issue of The Journal of Art Crime, edited by ARCA Founder Noah Charney. It is available electronically (pdf) and in print via subscription and Amazon.com. Associate Editor Marc Balcells (ARCA '11) is a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Department of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice -- The City University of New York.

August 17, 2013

Llewelyn Morgan's "The Buddhas of Bamiyan" reviewed by Catherine Sezgin (The Journal of Art Crime, Spring 2013)

Llewelyn Morgan, University Lecturer in Classical Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, "had an interest in Afghanistan from a couple of sources," before he spent 14 months writing The Buddhas of Bamiyan. Morgan explained in an email:
Like a lot of Classicists, I was fascinated by the legacy of Alexander the Great and the Greek culture that persisted in Central Asia for centuries after him. Years ago, I was staying at my grandmother's house (after her death), and was sifting through the antiques and knick-knacks she obsessively collected. I found a samovar, and discovered that it was from Kandahar in 1881, during the Second Afghan War. Later I made friends with someone who was in charge of clearing mines in Afghanistan and he persuaded me to celebrate my 40th birthday by visiting the country.
The Taliban's destruction of the giant stone Buddhas in Afghanistan captured international attention. Morgan concisely explains which group provided the Taliban with the ammunition to destroy the two colossal images of the cliff Buddhas (Al-Qa'ida) and why (to create international outrage six months before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001). Morgan assesses the loss of the archaeological monument ("Bamiyan was Afghanistan's Stonehenge, the most celebrated archaeological site in the country"):
It remains a terrible tragedy that they were destroyed. What I hadn't realized before doing the research is what an immensely rich history that they had and what very significant monuments they had been for a variety of cultures. ... they were a wonder for three separate cultures, the Buddhists that created them, the Islamic peoples who followed, and then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, for the Western world. The 19th century, when British and European travelers and spies rediscovered the statues, is a particularly fascinating period of history. The best way to compensate for an artistic crime is to fill in the proper meaning of these monuments.
You may finish reading this book review by Catherine Sezgin in the ninth issue of The Journal of Art Crime, edited by ARCA Founder Noah Charney (available electronically and in print via subscription and Amazon.com). Associate Editor Marc Balcells (ARCA '11) is a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Department of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice -- The City University of New York.

August 15, 2013

Erik el Belga's "Por amor al arte. Memorias del ladrón más famoso del mundo" reviewed by Marc Balcells (The Journal of Art Crime, Spring 2013)

Marc Balcells reviews Erik el Belga's Por amor al arte. Memorias del ladrón más famoso del mundo (Editorial Planeta 2012) in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.
We criminologists teach a particular theory: neutralization techniques, named by its authors, Matza and Sykes. In a nutshell, the theory states that committing crimes is illogical, and offenders need to rationalize it. Analyzing the perpetrator's discourse, from the perspective of this theory, will pour forth a chain of excuses/rationalizations that convert his or her actions into something rational and logical: something he can live with. 
This was the recurring theoretical framework that came to my mind while reading the life of art thief Erik el Belga, the nickname behind René Alphonse Ghislain Vanden Berghe, a Belgian citizen, long established in the south of Spain who, alongside his wife, has published his memories, in Spanish. 
To date this book has not been translated, so the practical question for the potential reader is: should he or she invest his or her time in this text, if not well-versed in Cervantes' mother tongue? It depends. Of course, if one is interested in reading the memories of an art thief, it is, indeed worth turning to. But if not, I seriously think this is not a book to recommend, outside of those specifically interested in the subject. The first edition had no fewer than 683 pages, which makes the reading a quite daunting task. 
You may finish reading this review in the ninth issue of The Journal of Art Crime, edited by ARCA Founder Noah Charney (available electronically and in print via subscription and Amazon.com). Associate Editor Marc Balcells (ARCA '11) is a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Department of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice -- The City University of New York.

August 11, 2013

David A. Scott's "On Art Forgery: the History of a Modern Obsession by Thierry Lenain (The Journal of Art Crime, Spring 2013)

Professor David A. Scott reviews Theirry Lenain’s Art Forgery: the History of a Modern Obsession:
Thierry Lenain writes that if Otto Kurtz (who wrote a much admired volume on art forgery several decades ago) should rise from the dead, that he would be disappointed with the present volume. Here Thierry Lenain underestimates the significance of his recent work. Art Forgery: the History of a Modern Obsession, which presents much interesting new material in a crowded field of competing volumes, also called “Art Forgery,” of which there are scores of identically-titled works, almost an allegory for the subject itself, as much of the content of these volumes is repetitive. Lenain’s works stands out as a significant research endeavour, not just another run-of-the-mill rehash of the lives of famous forgers, of which there are a continual stream. Incidentally, in common English use, we sometimes make a distinction between a fake and a forgery. A fake is a copied work of art, such as a series of Monet’s hung as a backdrop in a play: these are fake Monet’s, but they are not forgeries. If the same pictures of Monet’s are copied, signed and then sold as an original Monet, then we refer to that as a forgery, but these distinctions may not apply in other languages, so we do not necessarily see authors whose first language is not English following this precept. Forgery implies criminal deceit which a fake does not: at least that is the way in which several European writers use the two words, which makes an often useful distinction between the two actions or motives involved.
David A. Scott is a Professor in the Department of Art History at UCLA, and the Founding Director (2003-2011) of the UCLA/Getty Program in Archaeological and Ethnographic Conservation, UCLA.

Thierry Lenain is a professor of art theory at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

This book review is continued in the ninth issue of The Journal of Art Crime, edited by ARCA Founder Noah Charney (electronically and in print via subscription and Amazon.com). Associate Editor Marc Balcells (ARCA '11) is a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Department of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice -- The City University of New York.

April 17, 2013

B. A. Shapiro invents a fifth version of Degas' "After the Bath" in the book "The Art Forger" which focuses on the Boston art world and the 1990 theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Degas' After the Bath c 1883
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

B. A. Shapiro's The Art Forger (Algonquin Books, 2012) mixes elements with the 1990 theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Theft with the Boston art world and art forgery. Ms. Shapiro uses a fictional painting by Edgar Degas, After the Bath, in this art crime novel.

Here's a link to the book review in The New York Times by Maxwell Carter, an associate vice president and a specialist in Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, which provides a nice synopsis of the plot.

Here's a link to the author B. A. Shapiro's website which includes information on art thefts, art forgeries, and encouraging words about writing novels.

This link to a book review last January in the Salisbury Post ("'Art Forger' leaves readers wondering what's real") highlights the author's note at the end of the book:
Shapiro does several clever things. She uses real artists and real connoisseurs like Gardner in the telling of the book. All the forgers Claire learns from are real, as are the techniques they used. She mixes in chapters of Isabella Gardner’s letters to her niece detailing her adventures with Degas — these are juicy fiction. She offers “A Note on the Research” at the end of the book to make clear what is history and what is fiction.
Barbara Shapiro writes in this "Note on the Research":
The painting techniques that Claire uses for both her forgery and her own work are consistent with current practices, as are the descriptions of the struggles of a young artists. The forgers and dealers she discovers through her Internet research were/are actual people, including John Myratt, Ely Sakhai, and Han van Meegeren, and the specifics of their crimes, methods, inventions, and punishments are also accurate. 
The details of the 1990 robbery of Gardner Museum are factual -- it remains the largest unsolved art heist in history -- with the exception of the inclusion of Degas' fifth After the Bath, which neither was stolen nor exists, although it is a composite based on his other four After the Bath works.
Blogger Poul Webb (Arts & Artists) shows images from Degas' studies on women after bathing.

Here's a link to a discussion of Degas' After the Bath at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

February 19, 2013

Jonathan Keats' FORGED: Alceo Dossena (1878-1937)

Madonna and Child, marble
Alceo Dossena, 1930
San Diego Museum of Art

Artist and critic Jonathan Keats highlighted Italian forger Alceo Dossena in his book, FORGED: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age. A version of the chapter on Dossena was previously published in Art & Antiques Magazine ("Almost Too Good") in November 2011.

In 1925, the Cleveland Museum of Art paid $18,000 for a painted wood statue of a life-size Madonna and Child from a convent chapel in the town of Montefiascone near Lake Bosena north of Rome. Two years later, a series of X-rays revealed that the sculpture was not by Giovanni Pisano or any known Renaissance or medieval artist due to the presence of 20-th century nails used in the construction.  The Ohio museum returned the work to Europe before paying $120,000 for an ancient marble statue of Athena.  In 1928 AlceoDossena, angry that his fraudulent associates had made significantly more money than they had paid him for his forgeries, confessed he had made both works in his studio in Rome.

In his hometown of Cremona in Lombardy, Dossena learned painting and sculpture at a trade school then apprenticed for art restorers in Cremona and Milan, which gave him ‘practice in the traditional crafts, as well as a thorough knowledge of how to artificially age materials. Equally important, it put him in physical contact with the work of masters from Pisano to Mino da Fiesole to Simone Martini (Dossena would later create works that he would attribute to these artists).

Madonna and Child, wood, early 20th century
Alceo Dossena, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Dossena, who later claimed not to have intended to defraud anyone with his creations, was peddling artificially aged works in dive bars during World War I when he met two antique and art dealers who set him up in a studio after the war. It’s estimated that Dossena operated in his forgery studio from 1918 to 1928, providing product worth $2 million on the art market. Keats writes:

They benefited from the harsh economic conditions following World War I, which fostered a black market in genuine masterpieces illicitly sold by impoverished European institutions to the wealthy patrons of ambitious American museums.  Rumors were rife and alluring.  Even the Vatican was said to be furtively selling off hidden treasures.

In addition to the wooden Madonna in the style of Pisano, Dossena created dozens of works: an Annunciation in marble (Simone Martini) sold to Helen Clay Frick for $225,000; a marble sarcophagus (Mino da Fiesole) sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $100,000; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased ‘a genuine piece of archaic Greek sculpture’ that went straight to the basement.

Immediately after Dossena exposed his work as forgeries in 1928, the Cleveland Art Museum called Dossena “among the greatest sculptors of the day” (this institution does not include any works by this artist in their collection online") . But when Dossena’s works were sold under his own name at auction in New York City in 1933, 39 pieces sold for a total of $9,125.  Critics then dismissed Dossena’s artistic talent in the seven years before his death. Keats writes:

The schism in Dossena’s reputation reflects the problem presented by his art, that it cannot adequately be categorized as true or false.  Neither the praise he garnered in the 1920s nor the condemnation that followed does his work justice.  He was an original and he was a copyist, and the compulsion to take sides merely reflects society’s categorical literal-mindedness.  Modern viewers deem authenticity a prerequisite for an artifact to be a work of art.  Dossena presented people with an authentic paradox.

November 26, 2012

The Journal of Art Crime, Fall 2012: Review of Edmund de Waal's "The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance"

In the Fall 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime, Catherine Sezgin reviews Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Picador, 2010).

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramic potter and academic uses the history of his family's netsuke collection to allow readers to understand this Japanese art in his memoir:
I pick one up and turn it around in my fingers, weight it in the palm of my hand.  If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory.  You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones: there is a faint shine on the spine of the bridled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace.  The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every color, in fact, but white.  A few have inland eyes of amber or horn.  Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings.  There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada.  Who dropped it? Where and when?
The story involves 19th century Paris, Nazi occupied Vienna, and post-war Japan.

"Not since Jonathan Harr's book, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, has a book so influenced me," Ms. Sezgin writes in the review.

Ms. Sezgin edits the ARCA blog.

You may read this article by subscribing to The Journal of Art Crime through the ARCA website.

August 24, 2012

Book Review: "Hare with the Amber Eyes", Part III

“The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” By Edmund de Waal

Paperback: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010
Book Review by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief, Part III

Charles Ephrussi moves to a ‘grander’ address at 11, avenue d’Iéna in the 7th arrondissement of Paris and begins purchasing pictures, the first of which were by Berthe Morisot. He would own 40 Impressionist works – by Morisot, Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir. A true story of Charles, a Manet painting, and an extra asparagus stalk is disguised by Proust in a reference to ‘Monsieur Elstir’s asparagus’. As part of his research, Mr. da Waal traveled to the National Gallery in London to see Monet’s Les bains de la Grenouillère once owned by Charles. Even the back of Charles Ephrussi’s head is depicted in Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers, the Luncheon of the Boating Party. In 1899, Charles sent the 264 netsuke in a black vitrine with green velvet shelves and a mirrored back as a wedding gift to his first cousin, Victor and the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla, the great-grandmother of Edmund de Waal.

The netsuke collection was set in the dressing room of the fashionable Baroness at the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Emmy’s three children took out the objects and played with them while they visited their mother during her long ritual of dressing for her various social engagements, particularly on Sunday morning when their caregivers had the morning off to attend church. Mr. da Waal visited Vienna and researched the history of the family business and the contradictory relationship of his great-grandfather Viktor to business, art, and his family. During this period, Mr. da Waal tells of how Vienna, which under Emperor Franz Joseph had expanded the Jewish community, became increasingly anti-Semitic under a mayor whose philosophy would mentor Adolf Hitler.

The Ephrussi family considers themselves assimilated Jews, even celebrating the festivities of Christmas. Mr. da Waal describes the luxurious life of this family with the national events that would change their country and ultimately threaten their survival. The Ephrussi family was even able to leave ‘demonstrations against the Jews’ in Vienna during the First World War for their country home in Czechoslovakia for fresh food. Then in 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire is dissolved, the Emperor Karl flees to Switzerland and Austria becomes a republic. Mr. da Waal notes how his grandmother Elisabeth claimed her spot in the academic world as a poet and lawyer, one of the first women from the University of Vienna to receive a doctorate in law. Elizabeth marries a young Dutchman of the Reformed Church at an Anglican church in Paris.

Meanwhile, for two decades between two wars, Austria struggled along until it was annexed to Nazi Germany. Then in 1938, ‘six members of the Gestapo, in perfect uniforms walk straight in [the gates of the Palais Ephrussi].’ The Ephrussi men are declared enemies of the State and arrested. Emmy is relegated to two rooms at the back of the house while her husband Viktor and son Rudolf are imprisoned until they sign away all of the Ephrussi property – businesses, residence, and 100 years of possessions – to avoid being sent to the concentration camp in Dachau. Of all the objects stolen then sold, a loyal housekeeper named Anna risks her own safety to pocket the netsuke a few at a time until she could hide them in her mattress.

After the war, the netsuke are returned to the family and Edmund da Waal’s great-uncle Iggie takes them back to Japan where he spends the rest of his life. And where Edmund the potter and student of Japanese finds the netsuke and learns what those objects mean when they are returned to the culture from which they came.

Here are links to Part I and Part II of this review.

August 22, 2012

Book Review: "Hare with the Amber Eyes" Part II

“The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” By Edmund de Waal
Paperback: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010


Book Review by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief, Part II

In the prologue de Waal describes what he doesn’t want his book to be:
I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss…. And I’m not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago.
He does have a vision for his book:
I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.
De Waal expected his project to take six months not the six years his journey took him through archives and libraries from Tokyo to Odessa where his Russian family of grain-exporters originated. A piece of oral history links him from his grandmother to the purchaser of these objects, Charles Ephrussi, who lived on the rue de Monceau (slang for nouveau riche) in the Hôtel Ephrussi in Paris in the late 19th century. As a child, Elisabeth Ephrussi had met Charles at the family’s six storey stone Swiss chalet ‘on the edge of Lake Lucerne’. Elisabeth lived at the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna (not too far from the Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer residence).

Mr. de Waal, one of four sons of a retired clergyman in England, starts with a slender cache of objects from his 80-year-old father then travels to libraries, archives, and to each relevant family residence to piece together this story of collecting. In Paris de Waal discovers that the Hôtel Ephrussi at 81 rue de Monceau is now ‘an office for medical insurance’. The Ephrussi family had branched into banking in Vienna, the capital city of the Hapsburg Empire, and had set up offices in the French capital. One of the Ephrussi men, Charles, was excused from the business of making money. Charles moved from Odessa to Vienna before settling in Paris to live as a bachelor art scholar and collector: ‘He is in the extraordinary position of being both ridiculously affluent and very self-directed.’ Charles traveled throughout Europe gathering information for a book on the German artist Albrecht Dürer: Charles ‘needs to find every drawing, every scribble in every archive, in order to do him justice’ (not unlike this journey of Edward de Waal).

Anti-Semitism haunts the family even in 19th century Paris. Mr. de Waal notes that the diarist Edmond de Goncourt claims Charles has ‘infested’ the salons of Paris as a Jew: ‘Charles, he (Goncourt) intimates, is ubiquitous, the trait of someone who does not know his place; he is hungry for contact, does not know when to shade eagerness and become invisible.’ In addition to Goncourt, Marcel Proust (with more charity) mentions Charles as attending artistic gatherings known as salons. Mr. de Waal reads all of Charles’ reviews published in the monthly Gazette des beaux-arts where Charles was a contributor, editor and an owner. In the 1870s, Charles, who also collected French Impressionist paintings today found in many public collections, purchased collected Japanese art, a rarity in Paris, with his married lover (and incredibly the mother of five children, da Waal notes). Charles purchased 264 netsuke from a dealer in Japanese art, Philippe Sichel. As described by Goncourt, the artists of the netsuke specialized and took their time in sculpting the small intimate carvings. Da Waal quotes an 1889 letter from Rudyard Kipling describing the novelist’s reaction to seeing netsuke when he traveled to Japan:
Unfortunately the merest scratch of Japanese character is the only clue to the artist’s name, so I am unable to say who conceived, and in creamy ivory executed, the hold man horribly embarrassed by a cuttle-fish; the priest who made the soldier pick up a deer for him and laughed to think that the brisket would be his and the burden his companions…
Mr. da Waal describes popular erotic netsuke: “These small things to handle and to be moved around – slightly, playfully, discerningly – were kept in vitrines. The chance to pass round a small and shocking object was too good to miss in the Paris of the 1870s.”

Here's a link to Part I of this review. Here's a link to Part III of this review.