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Stealing Beauty: Part 1

1970
1945
Star-Telegram 9 June 2006
Andrew Marton

On May 21, amid the habitual bustle of just another Sunday at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, it would have been easy to overlook the dervish whirling inside one arriving French passenger. For 58-year-old Alain Monteagle, a slightly paunchy professor attired in a smart summer suit, it was all he could do to not sprint through passport control, throw his luggage into a rental car and lead-foot it west to Fort Worth.

Which he did, anyway. Though his business appointment at the Kimbell Art Museum was a full 24 hours away, Monteagle couldn't wait. On this first day of his first-ever visit to Texas, he shrugged off his jet lag and rushed through the portals of one of the country's premier temples of fine art.

Over the course of three hours, Monteagle methodically went from gallery to gallery, taking in the Bellini and the Caravaggio, and the East Asian sculptures. And then his heart began to pound as he entered the space holding masterworks by Boucher and Gainsborough. He was getting closer, and there was no time to dawdle. Now he was all but flitting spasmodically from work to work, panning for the gold of one particular painting.

And then he found it. Or, more to the point, the glinting pigments of orange and red from J.M.W. Turner's Glaucus and Scylla caught his eye and lured him into its sun-kissed beauty. Monteagle was mesmerized by the mythological theme and transcendent power of the great English master painter's 1841 work. He stepped closer. He stepped back. He walked away. Then looped back six more times.

"Yes, it's true," says Monteagle, speaking recently from his Paris home about that day in May. "My heart was beating faster and faster while looking at it. Just before finding it, I thought, 'I won't see it because they will have taken it away from me.' But when I did, I was enthralled."

And overwhelmed. Alain Monteagle did something that day he hadn't done since, perhaps, the births of his four sons. He wept.

His eyes filmed with tears of gratitude and no small measure of relief. For Monteagle's trip to the Kimbell capped a journey of many years, thousands of document pages deciphered and, now, thousands of miles traveled to be reunited with a member of the family.

In the eyes of Monteagle, Turner's Glaucus and Scylla had been a flesh-and-blood part of his Anglo-French brood, a cornerstone of his great-great aunt's collection of artistic masterpieces. In 1943, this cherished painting was one of 200 family-owned art pieces seized illegally by the Nazis and sold in a "forced" auction.

For more than six decades, the distinctively circular painting had drifted away from Monteagle's family, changing hands four times in 23 years as it got lost in the great maelstrom of the international art world, peopled, as it is, with scrupulous and shady dealers, intensely covetous private collectors and museums eager to hang such a grand work.

It was "lost" to everyone but Monteagle, whose bookish curiosity and private-eye's tenacity made him the natural choice to take the lead in his family's effort to track down their stolen legacy.

Finding Glaucus and Scylla would represent the crown in this all-consuming quest, one that - with twists and turns that included slippery art-world operators, stone-faced bureaucrats, guarded documents and even the Louvre - delivers the intrigue of The Da Vinci Code.

On June 5, when the Kimbell Art Museum stunned much of the art world by announcing it would return its permanent collection's only Turner to the heirs of its rightful owners, Alain Monteagle's name appeared on the global art scene's radar for the first time.

Yet for as long as he can remember, Monteagle had been nourished on fablelike tales of the Turner, along with other great jewels in his great-great aunt Anna Jaffe's legendary art collection. His family's joined-at-the-hip connection to art instilled in him a deep appreciation for paintings and sculpture.

"I remember being 14 when my mother - who was Anna's great niece - would tell me about her beautiful paintings and the terrible sale of them," says Monteagle. "It was at that young age that I first heard of this wonderful Turner."

Anna Jaffe, born Gluge, hailed from Belgium, where her father was a doctor to that country's king. Gottlieb Gluge was a German Jew who had immigrated to Belgium during the 1830s, when, a century before Hitler, anti-Semitism was stirring in Germany.

The man who would eventually marry Anna - John Jaffe - was the son of the founder of the first important Jewish community in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Jaffe's father, Daniel, was also an extremely successful tradesman, whose second son, Otto, would become Belfast's first and only Jewish mayor.

In 1870s Belfast, John Jaffe had already become a highly successful textile businessman.

Monteagle guesses that Jaffe met his future wife on one of his numerous business trips to Vienna or other posh cities on the continent.

In Brussels, on June 3, 1873, John and Anna married. Though the two would live the first years of their partnership in Belfast, Anna found that city's weather inhospitable. By 1885 the couple - flush with their own fortune and the wealth inherited from their respective families - retired to the French Riviera, where they would live their last 50 years in the great splendor of a neoclassical villa in sun-drenched Nice.

Anna Jaffe, a British citizen by virtue of her marriage, and her husband were among many Anglo-Francophiles who populated the plush French Riviera. There, John and Anna played host to artists and writers the likes of Henry James and Marcel Proust, and made a home for their burgeoning collection of art. As much museum as residence, the Jaffe villa boasted wall upon wall of great paintings by everyone from Goya, Fragonard, Rembrandt and Constable to Gainsborough, Francesco Guardi and, of course, J.M.W. Turner, whose Glaucus and Scylla was acquired from a Parisian gallery in 1902. Such was the enormous renown of the Jaffes' collection that they would lend out big chunks of it - including the Turner - to help complete several local museum shows. At one of them, the Jaffe works shared wall space with masterpieces from the British royal family.

When John Jaffe died in 1933, at age 91, Anna was left with the remarkable cache of artworks, which, according to an early draft of her will, she'd intended to endow to several prominent museums.

However, Anna, a British Jew living in France, grew increasingly wary of Adolf Hitler's ascent to power in the years that followed. With the Nazis encroaching ever closer to her safe haven in southern France, and fearing Nazi expropriation of any museum art, Anna, childless, chose to leave the entire art collection and her luxurious furnishings to her niece and three nephews.

Gustave Cohen, one of Anna's inheriting kin, was Monteagle's grandfather.

Anna Jaffe died at age 90 in March 1942, two years after the Nazi-sympathetic French government at Vichy had established its firm foothold. That meant that for the last two years of Anna's life, Vichy-imposed laws mandated that all Jewish properties were to be confiscated and sold at public auctions.

In Nice's famed Hall du Savoy, on July 12 and 13, 1943, a sale of all her property was presided over by a Nazi-approved French auctioneer named J.J. Terris. In 48 hours, the Jaffe collection - one of the most sumptuous in all of France - had been stripped from the family and reduced to cut-rate heirlooms hawked in what was less an auction than a crude flea market.

Over the last 12 years, Alain Monteagle and his wife, Brigitte, have lived a quiet, unassuming life in an eastern Paris suburb. But behind the seemingly placid facade of the lifelong history professor roiled the torment of injustice and the family riddle: What had become of John and Anna Jaffe's bounty of precious art?

In time, Monteagle's 10 other cousins - the geographically distant and near relatives of Anna Jaffe - were restless to solve the mystery, too, and they elected Monteagle - the second youngest of the surviving inheriting kin - as chief detective on this most personal of missions.

"Finding my family's art became a real motivating responsibility for me," says Monteagle, whose lilting, French-accented English conveys avuncular sweetness and a quiet determination. "While I can't say it became an obsession, I really began to feel that I must do this to defend both John and Anna's memory."

Through his research, Monteagle had become painfully aware of how his grandfather, combating the lingering anti-Semitism of postwar France, tried with little success in the '40s and '50s to recover his family's plundered art. Indeed, Gustave Cohen's tenacious efforts, which began a year after the auction, ended only with his death, in 1958. Cohen sent off reams of letters to France's judicial offices, courts and police bureaus - anyone who might have chronicled the movement of Nazi-purloined art.

"He would send a copy of these letters - many of which had really useful descriptions of the Jaffe paintings - to [France's] Ministry of Foreign Affairs office, which was officially charged with trying to find that looted art," Monteagle says. "He had to [struggle against the system] even though he was a relatively famous man in France and had fought in Charles de Gaulle's Free French brigade."

Cohen's persistent campaign wasn't entirely futile, as he was able, in 1951, to track down and recover a Jaffe-owned work by Goya. Unfortunately, the only way Cohen could pay for a top Paris attorney's aid in reclaiming the painting was to promptly resell it to a New York gallery. (The canvas - Portrait of Don Manuel Garcia de la Prada - is now on view at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa.)

Though Monteagle was 11 when Cohen died, much later on he would recall his grandfather's efforts and use them as motivation. In 2003, improbable events occurred that would spur the amateur sleuth to action and change his family's fortune forever.

In September of that year, Monteagle received an unsolicited e-mail from an Englishman purporting to be a researcher looking into Nazi-seized art. He and a colleague claimed to have purchased what they insisted was the only copy of the 1943 sales inventory from the forced auction of the Jaffe collection.

"I remember them telling me I would be a very rich man if I only met with them," Monteagle recalls, "a promise that left me with a very bad impression."

Monteagle, in fact, took a meeting with the two Englishmen, who would grant him access to the auction catalog only if he signed a contract pledging to turn over 50 percent of the profits from any future sale of restituted art.

He turned them away.

"They kept on insisting that their catalog copy was the only one in the world, and I immediately doubted that," Monteagle says. "Anytime anyone pretends to have the 'only thing in the world,' it is practically impossible - there have to be others."

That fateful meeting lighted a fire in the soft-spoken Monteagle's belly. He swore to himself that, from that point forward, he would devote whatever free time he had to finding his own copy of the catalog, the vital key unlocking the whereabouts of his family's treasures.

More than three years earlier, in February 2000, Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum received its own unsolicited correspondence from a British art researcher. Ian Locke introduced himself as someone looking into the restitution of Jewish-owned works looted during World War II. He was paying particular attention to the Jaffe collection, which in all likelihood, he wrote, had been a part of a forced sale and included the Kimbell's Turner.

Spurred by Locke's letter, the Kimbell immediately had its registrar dig into the background of Glaucus and Scylla, first through London's Art Loss Register, the world's largest database for stolen or looted artwork. The painting was not on its list. Going one step further, the Kimbell secured the services of Evie Joselow, a former chief researcher at New York's Commission for Art Recovery.

"What we were most interested in her determining was whether the Turner put up for sale [in 1943] was, in fact, our Turner; and whether the sale was a forced auction," says Kimbell senior curator Malcolm Warner. "Another big question was whether the work had [at some point] been restituted back to the family." If it had, Warner reasoned, the painting would have legitimately made its way into the art market before the Kimbell purchased it.

Joselow determined that the Kimbell's Turner was, indeed, the one sold in 1943. What she couldn't confirm was Locke's suspicion that the auction was forced. "We also didn't know," adds Warner, "who and where the Jaffe heirs might be."

The Kimbell's history with Glaucus and Scylla dates to 1966, when Richard Brown, the museum's first director, bought it for an undisclosed sum from New York's Newhouse Galleries, which had a long tradition of supplying numerous wealthy families (including Fort Worth's Kay and Velma Kimbell) with 18th-century British paintings. The provenance, or ownership history, that Newhouse provided to the Kimbell upon purchase was quite detailed up until the painting's 1902 sale to Anna and John Jaffe. Where all the previous owners of Glaucus and Scylla were listed by name, the provenance suddenly got fuzzy when it came to the Jaffes. "A French Collector, Paris, France, until after 1950," is all the document says. Just as disturbingly, the only notation of ownership after 1950 is listed as the inaccurate and impossibly vague "An American Collector."

The omission of the Jaffe's name is, at best, odd, given that Agnew's Gallery of London, which owned the work before Newhouse, publicly advertised in 1956 their Turner as coming from the John Jaffe collection.

If, in 2000, the Kimbell's curiosity wasn't sufficiently piqued to continue the investigation of their Turner's uncertain history, what happened the next year should certainly have aroused more suspicion.

In July 2001, the art world snapped to attention when Adam Williams, a former top dealer with Newhouse, was convicted in a French court of attempting, in 1990, to sell a portrait by 17th-century Dutch master Franz Hals that was proved to have been looted by the Nazis.

The Kimbell didn't make the connection.

In the broader and newly contentious art world, it has become commonplace for institutions like the Kimbell to be pitted against both honest victims of art thievery and document-wielding opportunists. Instinctively, these museums circle the wagons when confronted with the prospect of losing a premier work. In fact, the resistance - often led by a phalanx of attorneys - is designed to discourage such requests for restitution.

Malcolm Warner insists that in the case of the Kimbell and the questionable Turner, it was more benign obliviousness than calculated obfuscation.

"I think the idea of Newhouse being particularly involved in [the trafficking of] stolen property is a bit far-fetched," he says. "I mean, the Kimbell, in particular, had too long an association with Newhouse to turn around and [see them as] unscrupulous dealers that we should be wary of. It is very possible that the omission of the Jaffe name from Newhouse's version of the Turner provenance could be chalked up to sloppiness.

"On the other hand, it could be something more deliberate," he continues. "But it is just guesswork at this point. As unbelievable as it may seem today, when you go back to 1966, when the painting was bought by the Kimbell, this kind of [incomplete] provenance - and the possibility that this work of art was illegally expropriated in World War II - doesn't seem to have been such a big issue."

Stealing Beauty: Part 2 - 9 July 2006

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