Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How a Museum Lecture Becomes a Novel

Getty Center, Los Angeles, home to many inspiring and lectures.

When is an artpiece considered “Stolen?” 

Inspiration for a novel from a museum lecture. 

Stolen art can create a deep-seeded, complex conflict between families, institutions and dealers. It’s a great set-up or sub-plot for a novel.

When is a piece of art considered “Stolen?” This is an important question for any museum purchasing art and particularly of interest to that museum’s provenance hunter who must determine the pedigree of the art piece. A provenance hunter, aka: Art Detective, can be an excellent, sexy, intellectual character. 

What is Provenance? 
It’s the history of ownership of anything, but usually the term applies to art. If a piece of artwork is stolen, say by Nazis in WWII, then it’s not really owned by the museum or the auctioneer, but instead by the family, gallery or museum it was stolen from. 

I recently attended a lecture at the Getty Center on Feb. 28 by a provenance expert, Victoria Reed, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (Details in Events Section.) Victoria Reed is an Art Detective and she was kind enough to entertain a packed auditorium with some of her unique provenance cases regarding art purchased after WWII.

A church filled with stolen art from Jewish families during WWII.

I’m working on a book that takes place in Amsterdam, but involves the provenance of a Titian painting which is being claimed by two different families. A Venetian family originally commissioned and owned the Titian painting, but was forced to sell it to a Dutch Jewish gallery in order to avoid it being pillaged by Napoleon’s armies. In 1936, the Nazis shut down all Jewish businesses and the Dutch Jewish Titian owner was forced to sell the painting on the black market in order to survive. The original Venetian family purchased the Titian painting on the black market. 

The conflict: Both families claim they own the Titian painting which is worth upwards of $12 million.

Adding to the conflict is that the field of provenance is still new and has few defined laws. Every situation is case by case. Victoria Reed from BMFA defined “Stolen” during WWII as a series of questions:

1. Would the sale have taken place if the Nazis were not in power? 
2. Did the owner have a choice to sell?
3. Was the owner paid money into an account that the owner controlled?

Dr. Reed then described the details of the Westfield case with regards to a 17th century Eglon van der Neer painting which BMFA purchased in 1941. Details of Painting and its provenance here: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/portrait-of-a-man-and-woman-in-an-interior-32816

Eglon van der Neer painting (Displayed at BMFA) once owned by the Dutch Jewish family Westfield.

The case of Westfield is remarkably similar to the Dutch Jewish family I’ve created for my novel. 

-Westfield’s gallery was closed by the Nazi’s in 1936. 
-Westfield has no source of income.
-1936-38, Westfield worked with a non-Jewish gallery owner to sell his artwork, many works are presumed to have been sold on the black market. 
-Sales from the black market are not recorded.
-1938, Westfield crosses the border into France, with artwork, illegally, and makes several sales in Paris. 
-1938, Westfield is arrested for illegal movement to Paris for sale of artwork.
-1938, Westfield is sent to Auschwitz. He dies.
-1939, German catalog of Westfield’s collection shows no listing for the Eglon van der Neer painting, so it is presumed that Westfield sold it on the black market and used the money to survive. 

Now consider the questions that define if a painting is “Stolen.”
1. The sale would not have taken place, at least not on the Black Market at a reduced rate, if the Nazis were not in power.
2. The owner did not have a choice to sell. With no other source of income, it is presumed he sold the painting for survival.
3. The owner most likely received payment for the painting and he was most likely in control of the money received. 

Is the painting considered “Stolen?” According to BMFA, yes. 

An article about the Westfield case and BMFA’s restitution to the Walter Westfield family.

What does this mean for the conflict between my Venetian family and my Dutch Jewish family?
The Venetian family suffers from a statute of limitations, which states that artworks can not be claimed as stolen after a certain period. But like the Jewish families, offers of restitution could not even be put forward until long after the thefts. So suffering families of the Napoleonic pillaging feel they can claim the same right. 

This 2003 article regarding a Venetian trial of Napoleon's actions in 1797-1804 briefly describes both positive and negative views of Venetian sentiment towards Napolean:

The Accademia Gallery of Venice

In my novel the Venetian family originally commissioned the painting from Titian, thus has a historical attachment to it. The family hunted down the painting, purchased it shortly after WWII for $80,000, a great sum for a painting at that time. (The van der Neer sold to BMFA in 1941 for $7,500) At great personal cost, the family protected the painting, insured the painting and has now donated it to the Accademia Gallery of Venice, under the contracted agreement that it stays in Venice. 

The Dutch Jewish family claims that the Titian painting, now valued at $12 million, belongs to them. And according to restitution precedence, like the Westfield case, it does belong to the Dutch Jewish family. However, the Accademia Gallery can not let it leave Venice and they can not afford the multi-million dollar restitution payment. 

To add layer to the conflict, give the two families a multi-generational history of hostility against each other, toss in an innocent American provenance hunter who is trying to remain objective and not fall in love with one of the family members, and you’ve got a pretty juicy novel. 

So become a novel travelist, attend some local lectures and see what great literary adventures your mind creates. Then start planning your next research vacation!


  1. This is fascinating. Both the real story and the fictional version.

  2. This is an awesome novel waiting to happen. I can't wait to read it. And yes, what a great topic.

    What is it a painting of? Does the subject matter bear significance?

    I love the Getty.

  3. Super juicy! It is so complex - amazing how you are keeping track of all this information. This novel is going to be awesome. Can't wait.

  4. Hi Kris - Interesting idea to have the Titian painting subject matter bear significance on the story.

    I haven't picked which Titian displayed in the Accademia to use for the story. But now I'll choose more wisely.

    Great idea!