By Jessica Carpani
The Victoria and Albert Museum hope to reunite families with 80 pieces of Nazi looted art as it becomes the first museum in the UK to hire a provenance expert.
A rectangular, gold-mounted hardstone snuffbox
Between 1933 and 1945, Jewish art collectors in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe had their possessions systematically taken from them but now the V&A hopes to reunite families with their stolen artefacts.
Jacques Schuhmacher, 35, from Frankfurt, is the UK’s first museum curator dedicated to provenance research and has been uncovering the story of Nazi-looting through the museum’s Gilbert Collection.
The collection includes 1,000 items of gold and silver; gold boxes, pietre dure, portrait miniatures and micro mosaics and was founded by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert.
But, Schuhmacher has so far identified 80 items from the collection with a troubling past, including objects sold by a German auction house in the 1930s, objects that are known to have been in Nazi Germany or a country occupied by Nazi’s, items that were once in a Jewish collection and items with limited information.
Schuhmacher, who started his position last June, said his appointment is part of the museum “intensifying its efforts in the area of provenance search” with Nazi-looted art being a “big priority”.
Now he hopes the 80 objects can be reunited with families.
“I have been in touch with some families,” he said. “In many cases, it's very difficult. We’re talking about cases where people were murdered and sometimes did not leave behind family members.
“In other cases, the family members were scattered all over the world as they managed to escape Nazi-occupied Europe but it’s very difficult to track them down.”
One of the objects is a gold box owned by Eugen Gutmann founder of the Dresdner Bank, who died in 1925, with the bulk of his collection inherited by his son, Friedrich.
It was acquired by the Gilbert Collection in 1983 with no information about its provenance.
“In 1942, Nazi art dealers descended on the Gutmanns’ home and compelled Friedrich to send the collection to Munich. The snuffbox is not recorded on that inventory,” said Schuhmacher.
“In 1943, Friedrich and his wife Louise were told they could immigrate to Italy. Instead, their train was diverted to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, and they were murdered.”
Schuhmacher travelled to the Netherlands, where Friedrich lived, Germany and the United States to look through the archives. While the case remains unsolved he was able to meet a descendant of the Gutmann family, Simon Gutmann, who himself has written books on Nazi looting.
The Gutmann case was more fruitful than most and Schuhmacher says the process can be “frustrating”. “Sometimes you send emails to members of families and you never receive a reply and you can’t be sure if you’ve contacted the right person.”
But, he hopes a new display of eight objects from the Gilbert collection with “problematic provenance” that will go on show for free at the V&A this December, will encourage answers.
“If anyone has further information we welcome that information and I hope that it will lead to further research,” he said.
Once families are found they are able to make a claim via the Spoliation Advisory Panel who will issue a recommendation on the object.
For now, the 35-year old said the V&A would continue to tackle the difficult history of the collection “head on” and “where it is appropriate” provenance will be featured on description labels and the V&A website.
Schuhmacher said there has been a “tremendous public interest” in provenance and public restitution with a huge demand for tours and seminars.
He added that the exhibition, titled Troubling Objects, was “an attempt to pioneer this type of display in the UK and to see what the response is to it”.
Schuhmacher believes it is the duty of the museum to understand its objects provenance but resources prevent other institutions from following suit.
He said: “It’s not about museums trying to hide something, in many cases they just don’t have the means to carry out this research.”
Troubling Objects. Uncovering the Story of Nazi Looting, a free display, curated by Jacques Schuhmacher and Alice Minter, Curator of the Gilbert Collection, will open at the V&A on 5 December 2019.