“I searched the internet and typed words until it finally came up. That’s how I found it. I don’t live in New York. I’m not going to the Metropolitan Museum. I’m not an art historian. I’m just a normal person.”
Laurel Zuckerman told indianexpress.com via a video interaction about how she found an artwork that her great-granduncle and aunt sold while escaping anti-Semitic persecution in Germany and Italy.
Among the many heinous crimes committed by the Nazis in the Third Reich was the systematic theft of art from across Europe. According to some estimates, almost a fifth of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis at the time.
During World War II nearly 600,000 paintings were looted from Jews. Although the war ended in 1945, it wasn’t until 1998 that 44 countries came together in Washington to establish some principles for returning these works of art to the rightful owner’s descendants. Hundreds of thousands of paintings have reportedly been lost more than two decades after the resolution.
One of the reasons for this is that finding and identifying these works of art, which were either looted by Nazis or sold under duress by Jews fleeing the Third Reich, is quite difficult. Curators and art historians often avoid mentions of war in the “provenance” of artworks.
Provenance refers to the history of ownership of a work of art from its creation to its arrival at the museum where it is displayed. In the case of works of art that “changed hands” between 1933 and 1945, these provenances are often imprecise. Some people resort to digital tools to eradicate such false provenances.
Zuckerman is the great-grandniece of German-Jewish art collectors Alice and Paul Leffmann. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the Leffmanns fled the country to Italy in 1937. In 1938 they sold The Actor, a Picasso painting they owned, to an art dealer. According to Zuckerman, this was to finance an escape from Italy, where anti-Semitic persecution was increasing under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
A picture of the actor in the Leffmans’ living room in Cologne, Germany, published in DecorativeArt 1921. (Photo credit: Digital Collections)
The actor is currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, famous for the Met Gala. Zuckerman said she discovered the artwork in The Met’s collection in 2004, a few years after the museum launched its revamped website that provided online access to its collection.
At first she didn’t know the name of the painting and only had a vague idea of what it looked like. But that was just after the time the Met Museum began publishing provenances of artworks that changed hands between 1933 and 1945. After Zuckerman “searched and tried to search for various keywords,” Zuckerman finally stumbled upon the painting in the Met’s collection.
Since then, Zuckerman has unsuccessfully petitioned US courts to have the artwork returned to the legal heirs of the Leffman estate. Though her attempt at restitution was unsuccessful, this ordeal sparked Zuckerman’s interest in exposing the false provenance of artworks.
“It took a dozen years to debunk these false provenances. They had one shift after another. And many of the authors of those provenances were well-known, respected figures,” Zuckerman explained during the video interaction.
Zuckerman then began to wonder how widespread this phenomenon was. After looking into it, she found, in her own words, that “it was the rule rather than the exception” for artworks that changed hands between 1933 and 1945. “False provenances and works of art that changed hands during this period go hand in hand. It’s practically a marker,” she said.
Referring to The Actor, Zuckerman claims that “none of the source credits were accurate.” She explains: “Since my great-uncle sold the painting in 1938, not a single true provenance has been published. They were wrong in one way or another.”
According to her, an author who was a very respected art dealer simply removed his name from the provenance and replaced it with the name of an art dealer who had never owned the painting. Another author has changed the sale date. To piece together the actual history of the artwork and its ownership, she embarked on a journey, contacting her long-lost relatives who were scattered around the world.
While researching The Actor’s story, Zuckerman understood the magnitude of the problem of art looted by the Nazis and also developed an interest in using digital tools to uncover such art.
Laurel Zuckerman pictured here is the great-grandniece of German-Jewish art collectors. (Image credit: Laurel Zuckerman)
“I realized that all these different stories were being told about the same piece of art, and it was practically like people were trying out stories to see what would stick because they weren’t all the same. They were like trying out different stories. And then, little by little, one story got accepted more than the others,” Zuckerman explained.
Then she realized that the authors of these false provenances and details might have a modus operandi. If they falsified the records of a particular work of art in one way, chances are they could have done the same with a different story.
To identify these patterns, Zuckerman enrolled in a class in investigative journalism and also attended investigative journalism conferences to learn about the various tools she could use to find such patterns.
She first started using the now-defunct Google Fusion Tables to visualize the data and find patterns in it. Eventually, she began using a whole range of advanced tools and techniques, such as document analysis software, statistical computing languages, and knowledge graphs, in her work.
On May 11th, Zuckerman will speak at the Knowledge Graph Conference about extracting insights from errors in artwork data. Why error?
“It’s like a crime scene in a crime story, where the criminal wipes his fingerprints off glass and other objects to cover up the crime. Detectives follow the cover-up effort. Since the initial evidence has been erased, only evidence of the cover-up remains,” Zuckerman explained.
Zuckerman believes that the errors in the provenance data of Nazi-looted artworks contain patterns that could provide clues for uncovering other such artworks that were either looted or sold under duress during World War II.
With the advanced digital tools available today, it is much easier to sift through vast datasets to understand the connection between these “errors” in the provenance of artworks. Once this is done, it will be easier to identify other artworks whose provenance has been manipulated.
But there’s only so much you can do while sitting at a computer and working on data. Identifying the artworks that have “changed hands” is one thing. But after that comes the long bureaucratic process of actually returning it to the people who are now the rightful owners.
This work requires an entire parallel ecosystem of art historians, lawyers and activists working day and night to ensure these artworks find their way to their rightful place.
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First published on: 05/09/2023 at 5:10 PM IST