Stealing Beauty: Part 2

Star-Telegram 9 July 2006
Andrew Marton

The possibility that Glaucus and Scylla was illegally expropriated in World War II "doesn't seem to have been such a big issue" when the Kimbell purchased it in 1966, says Malcolm Warner, the museum's senior curator.

It became one in late 2003. By that time, recovering the literally tens of thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis - an investigative pursuit triggered a dozen years earlier by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the sudden availability of reams of Nazi wartime documents - had become the obsession of victimized collectors and art researchers around the globe. (See accompanying story.)

In fact, shortly after Alain Monteagle had his troubling encounter with the two Englishman in September of that year, he had a long and "inspiring" conversation with Didier Schulmann, a curator at Paris's main modern art museum, the Pompidou Center. At the time, Schulmann had been making headlines as a firebrand museum official who, on behalf of Jewish families looking to recover their Nazi-looted art, was kicking down the doors of oppressive bureaucracy.

Schulmann empathized with Monteagle's David-versus-Goliath plight and decided to lend a very expert hand in his search. He delved briefly into the tortured history of the Jaffe collection. Eventually, he called Monteagle to say that the Musees de France - the national umbrella organization governing France's mostly state-run museums - would be in touch about several of his family's lost works.

Within weeks, Monteagle received a letter from the Musees de France saying that they had made considerable progress in researching the claims originally filed by his grandfather decades earlier.
In the labyrinth of offices at the Musees de France building, Monteagle was told that the French authorities had finally tracked down several of his family's paintings, including one by 17th-century Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger and another by the great 18th-century English portraitist George Romney. For years, it turned out, the Romney had been on display 400 miles southwest of Paris at the Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts, while the Teniers had been hanging in that obscure Parisian art depot known as the Louvre - a revelation bursting with irony for Monteagle, who had probably camped in front of that same work during one of his innumerable visits to France's grandest museum.

Monteagle's day got even brighter when a Musees de France official pointed him in the direction of the National Archives and, most importantly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose file rooms were packed with dossiers on the forced sale of Jewish property. It seemed very possible that buried in those cavernous repositories would be the auction catalogue Monteagle was looking for.

After six frustrating months spent shuttling between Paris and London to obtain the wills of Anna and John Jaffe and certifiable proof that he and his 10 cousins were the rightful heirs to the Jaffe's priceless art, Monteagle was granted access to the vaults at the National Archives. There, he rifled through sheaves of irrelevant documents before stumbling upon a thin photographic catalogue organized specifically for the 1943 auction. It contained 35 or so images of the Jaffe art collection, none of which were identified by title or artist.

"I remember pouring through the catalogue, looking for everything, including the Turner," says Monteagle. "My mother mentioned there were paintings by Guardi, Turner, Goya, Rembrandt and Fragonard, and I immediately noticed there were no pictures of a Goya or Fragonard. This was clearly not a complete catalogue of the sale. But remembering [my mother's] description of the Turner, I was able to recognize a dark photograph of it and I could tell just how special it was. It made me more eager to find it."

In the spring of 2005, Monteagle finally gained access to the documents room of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After a seemingly endless day of sorting through material, and with his vision becoming blurry, Monteagle came upon a weighty (literally 6 pounds) official inventory of the auction. At 100 pages long, it chronicled every teaspoon, chair and blanket sold from the Jaffe estate. Of the roughly 500 bulk items listed were the 200 lost artworks.

Combing carefully through the catalogue's weathered pages, Monteagle determined that in 1943, a man named Seitz purchased a "panneau crepuscule ecole de Turner" (or "twilight-lit panel work, school of Turner") for 28,000 francs (or $6,000 today).

"I would learn that this Mr. Seitz appears to have sold the Turner not long after he purchased it," says Monteagle, "and, in turn, it was re-sold to a person who died. The story seemed to have ended there."

Undeterred, Monteagle knew that to ultimately unlock the mystery of the missing Turner, he needed one last crucial and tantalizing detail: the painting's name.

Amid the extraneous documents buried in the foreign ministry files, Monteagle began reading what would become the Rosetta Stone of his indefatigable search. Gustave Cohen, had, until his death, submitted to the Foreign Affairs Ministry updates on what he remembered of Anna Jaffe's collection. In one, he named the Turner.

"He kept on calling it Glaucus and Scylla," recalls Monteagle.

Like any 21st-century Sherlock Holmes, Monteagle turned over his investigation to the peerlessly resourceful gumshoes at Google.

And there it was, in one of his Google search's first entries. Joseph Mallord William Turner's Glaucus and Scylla could be seen on display at Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum.

To be quite honest," Monteagle says sheepishly, "when I first realized the Turner was in the Kimbell, I was ashamed to admit that I had not heard of the museum, nor had I ever been to Texas."

That would change quickly.

Last September, Monteagle made his first contact with the Kimbell's director, Timothy Potts.

"It wasn't a very long letter," recalls Monteagle. "I just explained what our situation was, and that we were very pleased we had found the painting, and that we were at their disposal to send them any necessary documentation."

"Trust me," Monteagle adds. "The tone certainly wasn't, 'Give me the painting or I'm going to shoot you.'."

Potts didn't wait long before notifying Kimbell president Kay Fortson.

"My first reaction was, 'This won't happen, surely we'll be able to keep it,'." Fortson recalls now. "You're sort of in a kind of denial of the reality of the situation. You're a bit stunned by it, but you do still think that it will all work itself out."

"Sure," echoes Potts, "when you receive a letter like that, your heart sinks as you say, 'Oh dear, we might lose one of our great paintings.' But I, for one, quickly got over that. This became clearly a case of something that had to be done, and about which the institution could feel proud that it would do the right thing."

The Kimbell quickly responded to Monteagle's opening letter, asking him to send an exhaustive set of documentation buttressing his family's claim on the painting.

"I was very pleased with their answer," remembers Monteagle. "Frankly, I was much more afraid they would respond by saying, 'What are you talking about?' Or just ,'Go away.' Instead, they behaved very correctly, politely and in good faith."

Once the Kimbell received the first batch of documents from Monteagle, senior museum officials and their top attorney began combing through the papers. The Kimbell team was looking for clear proof, first that Monteagle was the representative heir of Anna and John Jaffe, that Glaucus and Scylla once belonged to the Jaffe collection and, most important, that the painting clearly was a part of the forced Nazi sale.

In the case of the latter, no proof was more persuasive than the listing of J.J. Terris as the sale's primary auctioneer. The Kimbell's provenance experts immediately recognized Terris as being the Nazi's auctioneer of choice.

"Even though the paper trail was never perfect," says Potts, "when you added up all of the evidence of 60 years ago, it was enough to persuade us that it was right. The fact that it was a forced sale meant that it was stolen goods, and I didn't need to look anywhere beyond that. From a moral point of view, we had to respond as quickly as possible."

The wait for the Kimbell's final verdict was, for Monteagle, almost excruciating.

"When you're in my situation and you don't get a quick answer, you start to wonder, 'What did I forget?'." he says. "I have this responsibility to my entire family, and I was thinking what I might have done wrong. I was just so extremely exhausted by this point. I began to think it would really take 50 years to resolve."

And then, on May 17, came the phone call about which Monteagle remembers every second.

"Malcolm Warner called me," remembers Monteagle. "And because I was really quite nervous and tense, I just told him that I'd just prefer to have an answer, yes or no, rather than have to speak to yet another lawyer who I won't understand or who might try to ruin my family. At which point, Malcolm quickly told me not to be so anxious, and that the museum wanted to reach an agreement with us."
"Agreement." The golden word that Monteagle had been waiting literally for years to hear.

And with it still echoing in his ears, he celebrated in a quintessentially French way by uncorking a bottle of quality champagne. He then contacted his 10 cousins. Their long-lost Turner, he told each one of them, was finally coming home.

On Monday, May 22, only 24 hours after Monteagle's private, emotional audience with the Turner, he was back at the museum, meeting with Potts and Warner for the first time.

"I have to admit that my first meeting with Mr. Potts and Mr. Warner was a bit on the cold side," Monteagle says. "I mean, I didn't expect them to jump up and kiss me. I remember Mr. Potts saying something like, 'Well, you finally won,' and I thought I detected reproach in his tone. So I answered something like, 'Yes, your worst nightmare has come true.'

"The atmosphere was a bit icy in the beginning."

But it thawed considerably between the three men over the course of a private tour of Louis Kahn's spectacular building and a lunch at the Kimbell executives' eatery of choice, the local Italian restaurant, La Piazza. Not long after this amicable meal, the Kimbell brain trust and Alain Monteagle signed documents formally turning over ownership of the Turner.

"It was a sad day to lose a painting like this," admits Potts. "But I got over the sadness of losing the painting through the good, proud feeling of knowing that we as an institution had done the right thing by a family that had gone through a horrible tragedy. This was part of undoing one of the minor wrongs in what was a litany of monstrous injustices."

Almost immediately, and in sharp contrast to the sentimental and emotional thrust behind, first, Gustave Cohen's and, then, Alain Monteagle's long search, the heirs of Anna and John Jaffe announced that they would send their freshly recovered treasure to auction in April, at Christie's in New York. Indeed, of the 60 Jaffe paintings lost in 1943, the combined efforts of Monteagle and his grandfather have turned up 10 of them and achieved restitution of six. In addition to the Goya recovered and sold by Cohen in 1951, a Francesco Guardi work (The Grand Canal, Venice, with the Palazzo Bembo) was auctioned off a year ago, with the Getty Museum paying $7.3 million for it.

During that same auction, two Jaffe-owned paintings by David Teniers (renderings of Don Juan of Austria) sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars total. The Romney (Portrait of a Lady) once hanging in Bordeaux and now in the vaults at Christie's, is likely to join the Turner at auction next year.

The family vote left Monteagle with no misgivings.

"Remember, quite a few of these cousins are not very wealthy people," he says, "so for them the money is quite important. Sure, the minute you see this Turner you feel sad to be separated from it, but I could never have a painting like that in my home. I couldn't sleep at night with it here."

No doubt, this entire affair has caused sleepless nights at the Kimbell, whose substantial financial outlay for the Turner was uninsured. Art-scene handicappers are already placing bets on whether Potts will be in the front row when Glaucus and Scylla goes on the block in the spring. Potts, not wishing to influence the market value of the work, demurred when asked if the Kimbell would be interested in making a play for the piece. Of course, with the Kimbell having publicly acknowledged its desire to add a highly expensive annex to its already world-famous main building, the Turner may be beyond its normally ample means.

As for Monteagle, he is hardly living in the smog of self-satisfaction at his recent art investigatory success. He is currently caught up in intense negotiations with both a French and Dutch museum for the restitution of two paintings by Dutch artist Adriaen van Ostade, which once hung in John and Anna Jaffe's glorious salon.

With every artwork recovered, Monteagle feels as if he has bridged the chasm of time and so much tragic history between him and his art-worshipping ancestors.

"When I first saw the Turner that day in the Kimbell, I remember muttering a bit of a prayer," he recalls. "It must have been my way of speaking to John and Anna Jaffe, and trying to create in my mind what it must have been like to be them when they first saw this painting."

On Sunday, June 25, Glaucus and Scylla had its last day in its longtime Kimbell home before being crated up for what will be a long and winding journey toward its Christie's auction next year. Alain Monteagle's family will have their first communion with it when it hangs in Christie's Paris office in November.

They've waited more than 60 years for this reunion. They were so much younger when a few of them had the fortune to bask directly in Glaucus and Scylla's glow. Once they take in the luminous painting again, they will have the final satisfaction of knowing their wait was so sublimely rewarded.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024