The Unexpected Story Behind 245-year-old Painting
Historical Paradoxes in three parts.
Special publication in commemoration of Yom Ha-Shoah
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.
Part I. From Unremarkable Acquisition To Major Re-discovery
Year 2021: the 25th anniversary of re-appearance of believed to be lost rare artwork
This year, the end of April 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of a very special art acquisition which resulted in one of the most stunning re-discoveries in the present day art history. In April 1996, an initially unremarkable acquisition was made by the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland. It was an Italian artwork of the XVIII century, by an anonymous artist. As it turned out, it was the beginning of an extraordinary story which has become the subject of my forthcoming art historical documentary.
Eight months after the acquisition, in December 1996, the Museum and the Finnish National Gallery had had to call the press-conference. There it was announced that since now on, the Museum owns not one Tiepolo, as it was known since the Museum’s establishing, but two of them, with the second work being identified as the masterpiece of Domenico Tiepolo, the son of the great Venetian master of the XVIII century and the famous artist himself.
The one of the foremost Tiepolo and Venetian art authorities in the world, Dr George Knox was the first one who confirmed the re-discovery of the painting which was believed to be lost for a half of a century. The work in question was modello, an oil sketch on canvas, the medium which was quite popular among Venetian artists in the XVIII century. The artists of the period used these modelli as samples of the future works, of usually giant size, while negotiating the commissions with potential clients or art dealers. Because of their size and convenience for transportation, modelli has become much sought after artworks in their own right, which were happily bought for very good prices by numerous art collectors all over the world.
The work resurrected in Helsinki in 1996 was not an ordinary piece of art. It was the missing part of the series created by Domenico Tiepolo on Trojan Horse, the series which were widely well known and described in the art literature in detail.
The re-discovery was a major one. For a number of reasons, it had to wait until now, almost 25 years since the time of the work’s re-appearance, for the focused look into its incredible story in detail, to be amazed and to learn from it.
Helsinki, 2020-2021: first unification of Tiepolo’s Trojan Horse triptych in more than 200 years
Year 2020 was the time of the 250th anniversary of the death of Domenico Tiepolo’s father, the great Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo. In commemoration of it, the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Finland has organised a gem of an exhibition Tiepolo: Venice in the North, which I dubbed as ‘the exhibition of discoveries’ .
Giambattista who was the one of the major masters of Venice, and was highly appreciated also in Spain, Germany and Russia in the second half of the XVIII century, all his life was working very closely with both of his sons, Domenico and Lorenzo. After Tiepolo Senior’s death in Madrid in 1740, his son Domenico who had become the master of his own, returned to Venice and worked there quite successfully until his death in 1804. As a rule, most of the Tiepolo exhibitions world-wide are exhibiting the works of both father and his sons. The same was the approach at the exhibition in Helsinki in the autumn 2020-winter 2021.
If not tiresome restrictions caused by the covid pandemic, the exhibition at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in the capital of Finland would be saluted widely internationally, due to several very meaningful discoveries it brought in an elegant way and with its superb exhibition design. I wrote about it in detail.
It was at that exhibition, when one of the most notable events in the world of fine arts in recent time has occurred. For the first time in over 200 years, the series originally created as the three-parts entity by Domenico Tiepolo on Trojan Horse has been exhibited in its entirety. For the first time in over 200 years, the two parts of that notable work which belongs to the London National Gallery for over the century, were united with its third part which was presumed to be lost under the most dramatic circumstances, at the most dramatic time, before it resurrected in Finland, over 70 years ago, and was re-identified a quarter of century ago.
Helsinki, 1996: the missing part
It was a regular monthly auction at Hagelstam auction house in Helsinki in April 1996, with a few potential buyers presented, and with nothing extraordinary mentioned in the preliminary published catalogue. Among those several people at the well-known Hagelstam auction rooms, there was a young curator from the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. When he saw the photo of the work planned for sale at Hagelstam a bit earlier, he who always had a soft spot for Tiepolo, was thinking to himself: “Hmm, this dark old work of Venetian art does resemble Tiepolo , or his workshop, perhaps”. Today, Kai Kartio, now one of the leading culture figures in Finland, director of the new and popular Amos-Rex Museum recalls the events of the 25 years back in our conversations, with still recognisable amazement.
The bid was quite low, and the young curator had had the mandate from the Museum’s director at the time for such modest purchases which would fit a very small acquisition budget that the Museum had in the mid 1990s.
As Kai Kartio recalls today, ‘at the time when we still operated in Finnish marks, the estimate was equivalent to a few hundreds Euro”. There were other bidders for the work, as well, so when Kai eventually got the painting for the museum, its price fetched the sum which was the equivalent of under 2000 Euro. The Sinebrychoff Art Museum does not commit itself for public estimate of their treasure, understandably. According to some professional Italian estimates, the works could be conservatively valued today at 500 – 600 thousand Euros.
Kai Kartio knew his field well, and he also was attracted to works of the certain periods. It was clear, Kai told me, that ‘this dark obscure work in a bad condition was really a Venetian work of the 18th century’. But what is it? He was curious.
Being an able researcher, at the Helsinki University library, he consulted the best possible source, published in Munich and Zurich 8-volumed detailed catalogue of iconography of Christian symbols in art, Lexikon der christlichen ikonographie. Forty leading experts from France, Italy and Germany were working on the Lexicon for decades, with gradual publishing it from 1967 to 1976. The Lexicon, known as LCI, has become the indispensable source for any qualified art provenance research of the works of old masters.
“ As it turned out, the subject of the Trojan Horse has been depicted in art surprisingly rarely, – Kai Kartio told me recently, – and the Domenico Tiepolo’s series of three paintings on the subject were well-known and properly described in that really extremely thorough Lexicon. Moreover, at the Lexicon, there was also mentioned that the article in the German art magazine Pantheon, the leading German art publication at the time, has written about the one of the works in the series in particular in the 1930s, due to the big Tiepolo exhibition in Chicago where it has been shown.”
As art experts know, the Domenico Tiepolo’s two works depicting the Trojan Horse were at the National Gallery in London from 1918, and before that they were in the UK from the 1830 onward. It was not these works which were exhibited in Chicago. What was it then? And who brought it there?
After reading the description at the Lexicon, Kai Kartio ran to Finnish National Gallery archive where, as he knew, they had kept some of the Pantheon magazines, due to ‘the extremely close ties between Germany and Finland before the WWII in the culture field’, he mentioned. He found it. As it happened, Pantheon wrote about this particular work by Domenico Tiepolo twice, first in the beginning and then in the end of the 1930s, due to the two different occasions in the connection with the work.
When Kai opened the issue of Pantheon magazine on international art from 1930, he saw the picture of the work which he had just bought at the Hagelstam monthly auction a few months before for peanuts as the work of ‘anonymous, Italy, XVIII century” .
“Of course, I went to see Wenzel Hagelstam, the head of the auction house ( and the long-term host of the Finnish franchise of Antic, Antic TV-show), and showed him my discoveries. He was completely stunned. My quest for him was any documentation regarding the work which the auction house might have, and of course, I wanted to know now who was the seller, and any possible circumstances around the sale”, – recalls Kai Kartio.
As it turned out, the Hagelstam auction house has indeed obtained letter correspondence between Germany and Finland with regard to that work. In that exchange, the work was discussed among some other acquisitions of the certain Finnish diplomat, and it was described there as the work of ‘unknown Venetian artist, XVIII century’.
From that moment on, the story around Domenico Tiepolo’s The Greeks Sacking Troy in a blink of an eye has moved half a century back, and brought us to Berlin soon after the end of the Second World War, in 1948.
In the saga of tracing the provenance of the 245-year-old work by Tiepolo-son undertaken by my Finnish colleagues, aspiring and thorough art historians, this aspect and time period has attracted my attention in particular, due to my own historical research in different aspects of the post-Second World War period. I have spent several months looking in the specific aspects of the history of this painting: a possibility of a Jewish ownership of the work, all possible circumstances in connection with the work in a period between 1930 and 1948, historical, cultural and human context of the unwitting adventures of the Venetian master’ masterpiece.
My primary interest was in understanding the people involved, the process unfold, and the phenomena occurred in both micro- and macro approach to this amazing story: from one hand, in the history of one believed to be lost but founded artwork, the drama of the XX century which still reverberate to us, has been reflected. At the same time, from another hand, it can be also seen as the opposite process: a vast historical and human spectacle had been concentrated in this story in the most intriguing and not quite resolved as yet way. Remarkably, this story still poses open questions.
Berlin, 1948: Unanswered questions. How Tiepolo Jr. has become ‘an anonymous artist’?
The man who unexpectedly for himself has become into possession of the dark, unclear work of ‘anonymous Italian artist’ was Finnish diplomat Tauno Sutinen who was stationed in Germany before and during the Second World War as the Second Secretary of the Embassy of Finland in Berlin. According to the recent thorough research by the Finnish art historians that we will come to, due to the course of the war Sutinen had to return to Finland from Germany rather abruptly in 1944. Many of his dealings in Germany, including his ongoing relations with a certain art-dealer there, were left in the middle.
When Sutinen realised that he won’t be returning back to Germany as planned originally, he asked some of his acquaintances there to handle these unfinished businesses on his behalf. This is how the batch of six artworks from Berlin had eventually got to Helsinki in 1948, preceded by the letter of Sutinen’s acquaintance in Berlin describing that in return of the money that he left with the dealer, the later provided several artworks, including the one ‘rather impressive work by an anonymous Italian artist of the XVIII century’. The work was marked in the letter as being worth 15 000 RM ( Reich Marks) by the German art dealer. The sum in 1948 was equivalent of $ 6000. It is comparable to 55.000 Euros of the money value of today.
From that time onward, Domenico Tiepolo’s unrecognised masterpiece had been hung on the Finnish diplomat’s wall at his apartment in Helsinki. More than twenty years after his death in 1974, followed by the consequent death of his widow, the family decided to sell some of their art via Hagelstam auction. There are amusing details on how the auctioneers were not that much interested in that dark unclear painting, and almost had left the Sutinen’s apartment without it, picking it up, nonchalantly, on their way out at the last moment.
The dealer in Berlin who sent the batch of six artworks to Tauno Suutinen in 1948 via certain Georgy Ribakoff was Herbert Ulrich. According to the German vast and ongoing art historical research on the Nazi period and art, he was an established dealer with an impressive gallery at Unter der Linden in Berlin, the best possible spot of the Reich’s capital. As established by the Finnish researches, in 1944, the gallery was bombed severely, but he was able to resume his business, at the other location, surprisingly quickly, as early as in 1946, running it until his death in 1991. The business continued after his passing, and I saw that there is an art gallery with this name in the prestigious area of Berlin today.
So we know now how and when the lost third part of Domenico Tiepolo’s triptych on Trojan Horse has found its way to Finland. What we do not know – and the question is still an open and intriguing one – is why on earth a savvy German art dealer in Berlin has decided, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, to attribute a well-known and properly described artwork as the work of ‘an anonymous artist’. What he was aiming to hide? Whom, when and how did he get the work from?
When the Finnish TV crew entered the premises of the Ulrich gallery back in 1999, to ask his widow who was still running the business, a couple of questions, the real-life drama went straight on the tape. Frau Ulrich’s polite tone in the beginning of the encounter has changed dramatically in no time after the first question by the Finnish investigating reporter. Her smile went off momentarily, and with a stoned face, she declared coldly and angrily that she ‘has no recollections’, after which she uttered just one word: “Aufiderzein”.
A quarter of the century on, there is no doubt among the few experts who are still on the case, that Herbert Ulrich knew very well that the work in his possession was by Domenico Tiepolo’s.
The only reason prompted him to change The Greeks Sacking Troy’s authorship from Tiepolo to ‘ an anonymous’ was the previous owner of the work, or a middleman who dealt in the total upheaval of the art market during WWII. The most tricky detail which was brought to public attention as recently as in the autumn 2020, by the publication of the findings by the Finnish art historians Dr Ira Westergard and Kersti Tainio ( Travelling with Tiepolo, Helsinki, 2020) is the fact of the cut of the top edge of the label note on the back side of the work’s frame. The note is in German, and it describes the topic of the work. As the Finnish researchers justly noticed, with the photograph illustrating their point, the note is cut precisely at the place where the name of the artist is supposed to be.
The time window of the modello’s change of hands in Germany has been also established, thanks to another discovery by the same experts who were able to confirm where the work was until 1942. That window has been narrowed to five years, between 1942 and 1947. These years rings a lot of bells, with regard to art works and their sometimes unbelievable adventures, doesn’t it?
When I undertook my own art historical research based on professional thorough work of my colleagues from the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Helsinki, I was looking into any possible further lead coming of their discoveries, in the given period between 1930 and 1948. In the beginning of my research, I was electrified to see the name of the art dealer in Paris who, as it was established recently, have had the Tiepolo’s work in his possession until 1942, and who, actually, brought it to the USA, to participate at the mentioned already exhibition in Chicago in 1938. He was also privately negotiating possible sale of the Trojan Horse modello in New York and possibly Los-Angeles during his trip to the US in the end of the 1930s.
London 1945: A very special intelligence unit. In search of looted art of Europe.
I was electrified because I knew that name already. I came across it in the course of my previous research related to post-WWII Europe and the US. I saw that name in the OSS ( the US Intelligence) files on wanted Nazis. At the time of completing the files, in 1945-1946, the OSS in Europe was overwhelmed with the volume of their tasks. Established special unit gathering intelligence on looted art known as ALIU was actually run by just ten people who were supposed to get to the bottom of that incredible, giant looting organised by the Nazis that swept Europe during the six years of the war. More, in many cases, the business already started to thrive as soon as the beasts had ensured their power – and their appetites for art. I saw the documentation about the transactions which were actual robbing of intimidated Jewish families completed already in 1937.
Being formed as an intelligence unit in the end of 1944-beginning of 1945 and run from the OSS office in London, ALIU experts were able to distill the mess of personalities involved in the process of the Nazi crimes against culture down to 2000 individuals, both Nazi officials tasked with mass art looting and those dealers and middlemen who cooperated with them eagerly.
The list was serious, with proven facts, due to the fact of a brief arrests and detainment of many leading figures in the Nazi looting ‘industry’. With just a few exceptions, arrested senior art looters were eager to feed the American interrogators with a trove of information incriminating the others while trying to whitewash themselves. Typical.
ALIU OSS Unit was closely cooperating with most senior American art experts, and in the final list and report, their opinion was accounted as checking and verification of the intelligence collected in the field.
I have been working on the theme of looted art since the early 1990s, and have first-hand knowledge about how the process of investigation of that aspect of the Nazi crimes had been evolving from its very start in 1945. My knowledge comes from a number of great people who did participate in it personally or who have had their personal knowledge about it. Among them are my dear friends, like late Simon Wiesenthal who was working closely with the OSS in Austria in particular with regard to Hitler beloved project, his future Linz Art Museum, a giant operation which had an undisputed priority among all Reich projects on looted art.
Among them is also a legendary Peter Sichel who was running super-secret the CIA Strategic Unit in Berlin from 1946 onward and whose role in the restitution process in general and art in particular is crucial. There is also a leading art dealer and art historian Achim Moeller whose role in ongoing process of restitution of the looted by the Nazis art has been extremely important since the process has been started, widely recognised authority among historians, professor Konrad Kwiet who was the Chief Historian at the Commission of the Nazi Crimes Investigation in Australia, former minister for foreign affairs of the Czech Republic and mentor of Vaclav Havel, dear friend Prince Karel von Schwarzenberg, whose family’s property and possessions had been looted by the Nazis, and some other serious and highly reputable people who were and are still involved in that painful and saddening part of our modern history.
Based on that massive first-hand knowledge, I would like to emphasise that if the OSS and its Art Looting Intelligence Unit, ALIU, back in 1945-1946 has put a certain art dealer in their Wanted list, known also as Red-Flag list, it means that the evidence against that person’s dealing with the Nazis were overwhelming.
Part 2 and Part 3 to follow.