The Unexpected Story Behind 245-year-old Painting
Historical Paradoxes in three parts.
Special publication in commemoration of Yom Ha-Shoah
Part I can be read here.
Part II. Murky dealers, nasty agents, special addresses in Paris
With special thanks to inspired and inspiring colleagues: director of Amos Rex Museum, Dr Kai Kartio, director of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum-Finnish National Gallery Dr Kirsi Eskelinen, chief curator of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum-Finnish National Gallery Dr Ira Westergard, researcher at the University of Helsinki Kersti Tainio.
Paris, 1940-1942: Murky dealer, trustee of the Nazis, at particular Paris address
Italian Mario d’Atri who was residing in Paris for many years, ran his art dealership business there, and he also had a registered business address in Rome. The both addresses are mentioned in the OSS ALIU Red-Flag list and reports, most likely given by the interrogated senior German art looters who were buying from d’Atri.
I have looked into both of these addresses in detail, and the result of my findings are both intriguing and meaningful. It is yet more telling if to see it in the historical context of the topography connected to the figure and dealings of Mario d’Atri.
There cannot be two more different business addresses, indeed. In Rome, the address at 28, via Lima gets us to off-centre street in Parioli area, and to quite unremarkable building which most likely was d’Atri residential address in Rome or the place of his storage which would be very convenient at such casually looking unkempt place.
The address in Paris which he boasted on specially printed cards, just cannot be more different. He boasted about it for a very good reason. Or rather several of them.
Firstly, rue la Boetie in the most prestigious 8th arrondissement of Paris was known as the place of concentration of the several most prominent art dealership businesses.
But the specific number 23 on the street was known to everyone in the art world in Paris and beyond it as ‘a Picasso address’.
When Pablo Picasso finally got married, for the first time, at the age of 37, in 1917, his first wife was well-known Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlov, the star of the Djagilev’s Le Ballet Russes. Picasso himself was deeply involved as a set and dress designer in several of Djagilev’s productions at the time. Being finally married, Picasso needed respectability and a prestigious address in Paris to live and work at and a high-class milieu to be associated with. Olga Khokhlov was also quite pretentious and was looking for high-end quarters to be known to live there. The couple was arranged to live and Picasso to work at 23, rue La Boetie, the address registered at the OSS ALIU entrees for d’Atri.
Significantly, Picasso’s way of work and life at that stage was secured and paid for by his principal dealer Paul Rosenberg whose famous gallery was situated at the next building, at 21, rue La Boetie, and who also lived with his family there. It was Paul Rosenberg who had proposed Picasso and Khokhlov to reside in the house next to his business and home, and it was Paul Rosenberg who had negotiated the leasing contract for Picassos, and who had actually written the contract and paid for it.
Providing Picasso with living quarters and a studio from 1918 onward was part of Rosenberg’s arrangements with Picasso which have just started in 1918 and were continued for many years and decades. According to several memories, Picasso and his dealer both enjoyed the best possible working arrangements: as soon as Picasso would like to show something to his principal dealer, he would call him, and both men would come to their balconies which were at the same level of the both houses, as Rosenberg very smartly worked it out, with Picasso showing to Paul Rosenberg his new works and ideas, and Paul would give him his opinion on the spot.
When Picasso had amassed his enormous wealth by the end of the 1920s-beginning of the 1930s, primarily thanks to Rosenberg’s art dealing outstanding skills, he had expanded both his living quarters and his studio, having rented two full floors of the big building. Although he was starting to pay a very impressive sum of 25.000 franks per floor annually by himself at this stage, still Paul Rosenberg has negotiated the lease again, and supervised the contract, too.
Picasso lived and worked at 23, rue la Boetie until the war, despite his scandalous divorce with Olga Khokhlov who deserted their huge apartment in 1936, with Picasso still living and working there into the 1940s, when he changed his Parisian address. Even then, he still was renting his two floors at 23, rue la Boetie until 1951, and would continue to do so, unless the French government decided to end unused leases which was the case for him and 23, rue la Boetie at the time. Picasso was fuming that he was unilaterally left without his beloved huge apartment and studio where he was very actively creating for over 20 years.
As for his dealer and owner of the neighbouring house at 21, rue la Boetie, almost all Rosenberg family, except his brother and his son who fought the Nazis with the Allied forces, had left Paris in February 1940. With the occupation of Paris in June 1940, everything that Rosenbergs has left behind, has been confiscated and seized by the Nazis.
Everyone who is walking today via central rue la Boetie in the prestigious 8th arrondissement of Paris, is welcome to read quite a visible memorial plaque at number 21.
But there is more. 21, rue la Boetie in Paris is a screaming address in the history of art and modern history in general. Not only the Nazis confiscated the property of the great art dealer of the XX century and his family from that very building, but in the utterly mocking gesture, they did establish at the address infamous L’Institut d’Etude des Questions Juives ( IEQJ) , happily ran by French anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators organisation whose mainly business was to create and produce outrageous, insulting propaganda products of vile anti-Semitism. The whole operation was supervised by the Goebbels ministry and was conducted by the infamous German Embassy in France.
That notorious organisation operated at the house of great Jewish art-dealer, was responsible for the outrageous and standing apart in the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the exhibition Le Juive et la France, run as a oh-so-funny super-attraction in the centre of Paris, with specially produced film version of it simultaneously screened at numerous cinemas all over France in a massive anti-Semitic all France offensive.
Not only the exhibition was monstrous. The queues of those who would like to attend it were not less monstrous, as was their reaction and behaviour there, all of it documented in detail, but, in my opinion, still not properly discussed and dealt with in France to this day.
It is established that during that scandalous, even by the Nazi standards, exhibition of vile hatred which lasted from September 1941 through January 1942, at least 500 000 enthusiastic French and some German military personnell had visited it, for the paid tickets. Plus all those very vividly attended screenings at the cinemas all over France.
It does tell about the state of society and the atmosphere in Paris and in the country, as well, at the early stage of the German occupation there, doesn’t it?
No wonder that after the war, despite the fact that the French state returned the house to the Rosenbergs, they found it impossible to live there, either on 21, rue la Boetie, or in France. For the rest of his life (he died in 1959 in New York), Paul Rosenberg would be looking for looted from him by the Nazis and their enthusiastic collabos, as the Nazi collaborators were known in France, as many as 400 paintings, the gems of the world art, from Rembrandt to post-Impressionists.
After the Nazi invasion of Paris, the two rather special and notable properties at numbers 21 and 23 at rue la Boetie went under direct management of the German occupying power at the top level. Only they could provide permission to anyone to set up or continue business at such a notable in Paris address. From what we know about the Nazi practices in Paris, that ‘anyone’ should be trusted by them and should be regarded as useful by them. Mario d’Atri did meet these criteria of the Nazis.
The OSS ALIU red-flag register and some of the unit’s reports has provided us with clear indications whom Mario d’Atri was dealing with among the Nazi senior art looters. Mentioned there are Walter Andres Hofer, the director of the Göering art looted collection, and Kajetan Muhlmann, super-active minister for Fine Arts in post-Anschluss Austria, who led a total looting of Poland and Holland, and who is regarded as one of the most notorious art looters in the XX century.
This kind of the top Nazi designated art looters with huge authorities, and Muhlmann was also a high-ranking member of the Nazi party, were indeed able to giving a node to some Italian national living in Paris to have his business, or continue it at this kind of building and that kind of address in Paris from June 1940 onward.
There was a suggestion by some of Finnish art historians, unrelated to the Sinebrychoff experts’ research, based on the mentioning of d’Atri’s Nazi-connections, suggesting that perhaps the work of Domenico Tiepolo went from d’Atri via Walter Hofer to Göering who ‘did like this kind of plots’ on canvas. In my opinion, it is a rather too far fetched supposition which did not take into account important details of Hofer’s activities and his modus vivendi.
In the course of my research, I did revisit various information from different sources regarding notable Nazi personalities involved in the mass art looting at the given places and time, in between Paris and Berlin from 1940 to 1944, and in the post-war Germany until 1947.
With regard to Hofer, the thing is that the director of the Göering personal art collection after being detained by the US Army in 1945, tried very hard to be useful, and he ‘sang’ it all in an amazing detail. He also seemingly wanted to impress his capturers, the new bosses of the order, so he demonstrated his memory skills which did indeed impress them. There are several entries in the OSS internal reports mentioning that ‘Hofer seemed to remember every transaction’ during the past six years ( of WWII). In the fountain of Hofner’s super-detailed testimonies in 1945, however, there was no mention of the work by Domenico Tiepolo which would be the case if he would handle it. It was also not a major loot – as a work by Rembrandt would be – , so in the way which Hofet has chosen to behave with his American captors, he had no reason for hiding it.
It leaves the experts looking for the person who bought Tiepolo’s modello from d’Atri, with a possible lead to Muhlmann and one more figure. That person was not mentioned in the OSS red-flag register in the connection to d’Atri, but is very well known to the historians, and also is a subject of a special personal report prepared by the ALIU. We’ll come back to that most intriguing part of the story a bit later, after understanding how Mario d’Atri has got the Tiepolo-son’s work in the first place, where, when and from whom?
Paris, 1930: the same dealer, trustee of the Stalin agents
The matter of Domenico Tiepolo The Greeks Sacking Troy modello’s changing the hands before the Second World War has been properly reported and noted, with the photograph and description of the work at the time when it happened, in 1930. The article about this fact which was regarded as notable development, has been published in that leading German Pantheon magazine on international art. The same magazine has written about the same artwork almost a decade later, in 1938, in connection with participation of the work in the big Tiepolo exhibition in Chicago.
According to the publication, the work at the exhibition was presented by Mario d’Atri, with a note next to the illustration: “[ From the ] Coll[ection] of the Soviet Trade Representative Office, Paris, France”. In 2020, those two facts were clearly presented in the important study into the work’s provenance undertaken by Dr Ira Westergard and Kersti Tainio in Finland ( Travelling with Tiepolo, Helsinki, 2020). And it has been known to the Tiepolo experts before. These two facts are telling us that from 1930 till 1938 at least, the work was at d’Atri’s hands being sold to him by the official representatives of the Soviet Union.
Tiepolo’s work was sold to a murky Italian art dealer in Paris in an aggressive selling spree of the Soviet state treasures ordered by Stalin in 1929.
I have started to research the matter in detail from the end of the 1990s. The first wave happened in the early 1920s and was ordered by Lenin, with a truly vicious role played in that first wave of total sale-out played by American Armand Hammer who had several one-to-one long private meetings with Lenin planning the operation.
With the second wave, the Soviet leaders were hoping to get enough resources for massive industrialisation of the country, plus all non-declared expenses, such as military ones. Because it has been done in a massive number of the most revered art treasures in the world, during the short period of time, hastily and unprofessionally, with involvement of unqualified people, the result was the over-flooding of the international market, with inevitable sharp dumping dropping prices in a half.
More, in that rush, the emissaries of the USSR acting abroad had clumsily left a huge number of the precious artworks in the German hands shortly before Hitler’s reign began. With the Nazis’ seisure of power, that clumsiness had empowered the Third Reich with all those art treasures. The Nazis were only happy to handle the Soviet art left in their hands, selling it professionally and at high prices, plus a bonus of mockery over the Kremlin on the matter.
When I was busy with looking into the different aspects of the history of the looted art in the end of the 1990s-beginning of the 2000s, I spoke several times with a top Russian official who was supervising the quiet official look into the real inventory books of the Hermitage and other leading Russian museums, preparing a special internal report for the Russian authorities on what has country really lost during its Soviet history. Once he was sighing deeply, and said: “It is so awful that we cannot produce this report, we just cannot publish it, even for the internal use”. They never did. But we know the part of that tragic for art and culture story.
With regard to the Soviet agents’ art sale activities in Paris, the point here is that in France in the 1930 it was impossible to make any official transactions because the trade between Soviet Union and France was forbidden and illegal. It means that a representative of the Soviet authorities, or Komintern agent who was tasked to sell the Domenico Tiepolo’s modello from the Hermitage collection in Paris had had to cooperate with a trusted person — who would be able to re-route the transaction via some third country, as Switzerland, for example.
D’Atri could do it, for sure. He had a very suitable Swiss connection in the art dealership world for that, to whom we will return. He could also pay cash to his counter-agent from the Soviet Trade Office, as it was an accepted practice in that Stalin operation which I dubbed ‘Art for Might’. The operation actually resulted in a complete fiasco. The proceeds of all those impossible sales of the national treasures fetched just 1% of the USSR budget at the time, as the internal Communist Party audit conducted after Stalin’s death has shown.
Do we know that the work in question was in the Hermitage collection before 1930, and how did it get there? With published in 2020 very thorough works by the Finnish art historians and a separate study by the Hermitage expert on the Venetian art, we do now, luckily.
Helsinki, 2016-2020 — Tracing the destiny of the Domenico Tiepolo work
Kai Kartio, the man who did buy this artwork at the regular monthly auction in Helsinki 25 year ago for the Sinebrychoff art Museum, and who did re-identify and re-discover it, have said to me recently that he is ‘seriously sorry that he did not write and published a proper article on such extraordinary subject at the time’.
Twenty years after the re-discovery in Helsinki, Kai’s successor, chief curator of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum Dr Ira Westergard and working with her researcher at the Helsinki University Kersti Tainio embarked onto an incredible journey. The purpose of their project was to research the provenance of this work, the second of the two Tiepolos at the Sinebrychoff Museum collection, in detail. They did a very good job, with publishing their findings in a catalogue of the fascinating Tiepolo exhibition in Helsinki in the autumn 2020.
We have discussed the matter with Ira several times, in a painstaking detail, with a particular aspect of it in close attention. “Knowing the story of this particular painting, before anything else, we started to look in all detail at possible belonging of the work to some of Jewish families or collectors. It was an imperative for us to turn every stone in this direction. Of course, it is impossible to say anything on that period with 100% assurance, it would be simply unprofessional, but I can state that within a very thorough two-year research project and specifically looking into that very matter we did not come across any Jewish ownership of the work neither in the given period, or any other one” – Ira confirmed to me.
Yet before this effort was undertaken by the museum a few years back, Finnish National Gallery had examined the opportunity immediately after the astonishing news of re-discovering Tiepolo instead of acquiring ‘an unknown Venetian artist of XVIII century’. “Can you imagine that the leading state art institution in Finland would not investigate this possibility? – Kai Kartio told me. – In Finland, it is out of question. Absolutely out of question. As we know, many museums in many countries did allow for itself to keep the art with painful history, namely, looted by the Nazis from the Jewish families. It has happened in many cases in Austria, and as unbelievable as it is, it still is happening in France. But in Finland, we would examine every turn of the history and provenance of the work, especially knowing what kind of dealers it had been with during the war, both d’Atri and Ulrich. And we would react absolutely appropriately here if anything of this sort would be found out. But it was not”.
I was also relieved to read about the official statement by the leadership of the Finnish Jewish community made in 2018 in the course of the Sinebrychoff Museum provenance research project confirming that they did not find any traces of such possibility in the course of their separate investigation of the matter. Before that, yet back in the end of the 1990s, the Jewish community of Finland had made an official request to the World Jewish Congress to investigate. The result was that there is no evidence of the fact that the work had belonged to a Jewish family.
The story of this painting is a truly rare case when being such a treasure and being in the hands of not one but two very dubious art dealers during the Second World War, being deprived of its authenticity, with its author concealed deliberately in alarming post-war period in Berlin of all places, it turned out as most likely, not being stolen from a Jewish owners. It was an important relief for me personally, too.
But how Domenico Tiepolo’s masterpiece which was created by him in 1773-1775 in Venice as a part of a three-works series, found its way apart from them?
St Petersburg, 1817: famous action of Tiepolo dealer’s trove
In cooperation with world-renowned experts from Hermitage, such as the head of the Venetian art there Dr Irina Artemieva, Dr Westergard was able to recreate the travels of Tiepolo’s modello in a clear and convincing narrative. Dr Artemieva has also published her rich findings in the independent study in connection with the Tiepolo exhibition in Helsinki in 2020.
From that meticulous work of highly-reputed experts, we can see in concrete detail how the art created by the Tiepolo family has found its way to Russia, how it has become popular there, especially among the highest members of the Empresses Courts. Often it has happened due to the promotion and recommendations made by the leading Italian architects who worked in St Petersburg at the time, such as Rastrelli and Quarengi and who genuinely admired both father and sons Tiepolo. Dr Artemieva has made the conclusion that if the occupants of the Russian Empire throne would not be changed so swiftly, Tiepolo in Russia would get the similar eminence that he had in Spain and Germany ( Irina Artemieva, Tiepolo and Russia, Helsinki, 2020).
Back in the end of the XVIII – beginning of the XIX century, very shrewd and experienced Italian art-dealers certainly did not let such a lucrative opportunity be missed. The one of the most known of them, Niccolo Leonetti, after the death of Domenico Tiepolo in 1804, travelled to Russia with a trove of Domenico’s, his father and his brother’s works as soon as the circumstances of the post-Napoleon invasion of Russia did allow it, in 1814. He started to work quite actively in St Petersburg, but his luck did not last for long. Leonetti died in St Petersburg just two years after his arrival, in 1816. Soon after that sudden death, a big auction was organised in St Petersburg in 1817, with trading of over 250 art works by Italian masters, including 23 of them created by father and sons Tiepolo.
“We found and saw the catalogue! – Ira Westergard was telling me with beaming eyes. – The original catalogue of the auction in 1817 in St Petersburg”. In that superb discovery, the experts saw the entries of three works depicting the Trojan Horse theme by Domenico Tiepolo written all together, one after another. This documented discovery provided experts with the understanding that Tiepolo Jr. had created those three modellis in 1773-1775 as the series.
At the auction, two of the works were bought most likely by the well-known British painter George Dawe who resided at the time in St Petersburg and who was commissioned to create as many as over 300 portraits of the Russian generals and top military personnel, the winners in the counter-Napoleon campaign, for special and quite imposing gallery in the Winter Palace known as the Military Gallery. These two parts of the series went with Mr Dawe straight to Britain, and after his death in the 1830s, they were at different estates in Britain. In 1918, the two gorgeous works were acquired by the National Gallery to which collection they belong ever since.
The third work – the part which entered such incredible adventures – was bought, most likely at the same auction, by one of the noble Russian families. Noted by the Sinebrychoff Museum experts, there is a special stamp on the back-side of the frame of the work which was a typical way to mark such acquisitions. The experts believe that the work was in the collection of that noble family, most likely, in St Petersburg, for a century, from 1817 through 1917 or so.
After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and followed total nationalisation of private art collections and private property in general, the work was sent to the Hermitage collection, where from it was forcibly extracted by the Soviet authorities alongside many extraordinary treasures in 1929 to be sold to Mario d’Atri in Paris in 1930.
Tellingly, d’Atri knowing precisely that the work was by Domenico Tiepolo and was done in 1773-1775, has altered both the work’s authorship and date when he was frantically trying to sell it in the midst of the war. There is documented evidence of him trying to sell the work as authored by ‘Giambattista Tiepolo’, the father, and attributed as created ‘in the XVII century’. This bold fake tells about the character of a doggy dealer.
He tried to contact the UK National Gallery, the most natural potential buyer for the missing part of the Troyan Horse series in the midst of the war, via intermediaries. But the British ignored his offer, still keeping the documentation with this regard in their archive. We owe that telling piece of the puzzle to Dr Ira Westergard and Kersti Tainio’s excellent research.
Now we can concentrate on the most intriguing part of this story: adventures of the Domenico Tiepolo’s Greeks Sacking Troy modello and the mystery of its location during WWII.
Part III to follow.