Did the Russians Take His Family’s Tintoretto? He’s Intent on Finding Out

Nw York Times 5 December 2023
By Colin Moynihan

John Barry says that in the last days of World War II, his great-grandfather, a prominent German art historian, lost a massive painting of the 16th-century sea battle at Lepanto.

“The Battle of Lepanto,” attributed to Tintoretto, was once owned by a prominent German art historian. His family members are seeking help in tracking its whereabouts after World War II, when they say it was probably looted

In the annals of history painting, few topics have captivated artists more than the Battle of Lepanto, an epic 16th-century naval contest in which massive fleets of Christian and Ottoman galleys clashed off the coast of Greece.

Among the numerous depictions of the scene is an enormous, 10-foot-wide version of the engagement created soon after it took place in 1571 that has been attributed to Tintoretto.

That work, “The Battle of Lepanto,” was sold in Venice in 1908 to a German archaeologist and art historian, Friedrich Sarre, the first director of the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin.

The painting hung in that city for a time just before World War II. But then, as was the case with tens of thousands of works of art, its trail grew murky in the chaos of the times. The work was not listed as having been exhibited again in a public setting until the 1980s.

Now members of Sarre’s family have come forward to say they believe they know what happened to the painting. John Barry, a great-grandson of Sarre, said it is likely the work was looted from the archaeologist’s spacious villa outside Berlin in 1945 when Russian forces advanced to occupy the home and much of that area, based on family writings from that time.

Those documents, the family acknowledges, do not discuss the painting’s whereabouts then or during the war. But Barry said they represent a good start and that his efforts to further track the work have been stymied by Sotheby’s, the auction house, which sold the painting in 2016.

Sotheby’s has a team that focuses on the provenance of artworks that could have been lost as a result of persecution in World War II. It has publicized its success in settling multiple restitution claims. But Barry said that for more than two years, Sotheby’s has stonewalled his efforts to learn more about “Lepanto” beyond what appeared in its sale catalog.

That catalog, as Barry points out, referred to a 1910 exhibition in which his great-grandfather had been listed as the work’s owner. Yet when Barry pressed Sotheby’s for help in tracking the painting, he said an auction house representative questioned whether the painting it had sold was even the same one.

“There are many extant oil paintings of the Battle of Lepanto — it is in fact one of the most painted sea battles of the 16th and 17th Centuries — and I am struggling to connect the dots,” Lucian Simmons, the worldwide head of restitution at Sotheby’s wrote to Barry, according to email records Barry provided.

In fact, Barry said, the Sotheby’s catalog cited another connection to his great-grandfather —— an article he had written about the painting in 1938.

Barry, a lawyer who formerly served in the U.S. Justice Department, said he is disappointed that Sotheby’s stopped responding to his queries more than a year ago.

“A firm like Sotheby’s cannot take the public-facing position that a painting’s looted provenance matters greatly from the point-of-view of ethics, integrity, and market value, and then selectively ignore those concerns and refuse to come clean when it is confronted with uncomfortable facts,” he wrote in an email message to The New York Times.

Sotheby’s said it has treated Barry’s inquiries appropriately and that it has made every reasonable effort to evaluate his claims and engage in an open exchange. In a statement, Sotheby’s referred to Barry’s great-grandfather as a “pioneering scholar” and expressed sympathy for the family’s loss of the villa and its treatment by the Russians. But it said it has seen no evidence to clearly indicate Sarre owned the painting after 1910 and found no indication that it had been looted.

“Sotheby’s remains amenable,” the statement said, “to facilitating an amicable solution with the Sarre family in the event that WWII-era evidence of ownership and loss comes to light.”

Friedrich Sarre, a German archaeologist and art historian, who is credited with expanding an understanding of Islamic art

So many works were looted in Europe during the war that museums and the art market have committed to analyzing the history of paintings like the Lepanto battle image that have significant gaps in their wartime histories. Most of those works were lost by Jews at the hands of the Nazis. The Sarre case is different in that he was from a Huguenot background and the work, at least according to the family’s thesis, would have been lost to the Russians, who the U.S. State Department has said carted away major amounts of art and archives from Germany at the end of the war.

There is no evidence, though, that this painting ever left Germany. The most recent research by the Sarre family indicates that by 1957 it was in the possession of a German scientist whose heirs held onto it for more than a decade.

Complicating any transport of the painting would have been its immense size, which was perhaps viewed as necessary by the artist to capture the scope of a battle that featured hundreds of vessels and left thousands on either side dead or wounded. Giorgio Vasari, Paolo Veronese and Titian were among the other artists who depicted the battle, in which a coalition of forces from Spain, Venice and other states, assembled at the urging of the Pope Pius V, defeated a fleet from the Ottoman Empire.

One expert, Frederick Ilchman, chairman of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said he is not convinced “Lepanto” is by Tintoretto, given differences he noted with other battle scenes by the artist.

“Tintoretto tends to present particular moments of drama in the foregrounds of his compositions, adding anecdotal interest to the story,” said Ilchman, who co-curated a major 2019 exhibition on the painter at the National Gallery of Art. “That is absent here.”

But, even so, he said he found the monumental depiction of one of the top naval conflicts of all time “automatically interesting.”

Sotheby’s characterized the Lepanto painting in its catalog as “attributed” to Tintoretto, a term it uses to indicate there are serious grounds to believe a work is by a particular artist. In the auction house’s protocol it is one step in certainty below saying a work is “by” an artist.

Soon after acquiring “Lepanto” in Venice, Sarre lent the painting to the 1910 Munich exhibition where a catalog identified its owner as Fr. Sarre. It was displayed again in Berlin in 1936 and two years later Sarre discussed the importance of the painting in the article he wrote. He said it had been in a private collection in Berlin for 30 years, but he did not mention that the collection was his own.

The whereabouts of the painting during the war remain unclear, but Barry has collected documents that indicate Sarre’s home in an area outside Berlin was occupied by the Red Army in June 1945. One of Sarre’s sons wrote in a diary entry that on June 4, 1945, the Russians gave his family an hour to leave their home. Barry said Sarre’s wife, Maria, wrote in a 1954 memoir that she departed with only a dress, a coat and a blanket, adding that her family had lost “art treasures.”

The Barry family said it had determined that by 1957 the painting was in the possession of Arthur Scheunert, a scientist whose image later appeared on an East German postage stamp. Scheunert’s family attempted in the 1970s to sell the work to the State Museums of Berlin, which includes the Museum for Islamic Art. But the sale did not go through, according to a 1986 letter from the museum to Sarre’s daughter, Maria Louise Sarre

Sotheby’s catalog for the 2016 auction of “Lepanto” did not include information about the whereabouts of the painting for the decades after 1936, saying only that it had been acquired before 1980 by Alfred Lefmann, a German collector. The auction house said that the provenance provided in the 2016 catalog was the most complete available at that time, and that the painting was never listed in databases of lost artworks.

It was exhibited in Germany in the 1980s, on loan from Lefmann, according to Sotheby’s and was subsequently held by at least one other collector before being sold at auction in Paris in 2016 for $352,000.

Barry began reaching out to Sotheby’s for information about the painting in 2021 when family members first noticed it had been sold at auction. Simmons, the Sotheby’s executive, responded promptly, the email records show, and discussed the work with Barry by email and over the phone. At one point, he sent Barry a 1994 story mentioning “Lepanto” from the German newspaper Die Zeit that said there was evidence that it was in Sarre’s villa in 1945. The article noted that the home “was confiscated by the Russians.”

Sarre lived in this villa outside Berlin, which was occupied by Russian forces in 1945. His family believes the painting of the sea battle may have been in the home at that time.

But Simmons later wondered whether the work that Sarre had owned was the same one Sotheby’s sold, which led Barry to send pictures of “Lepanto” from the 1910 Munich exhibition catalog and from the 2016 Sotheby’s catalog. The images look identical, though the painting, once roughly 6-by-13 feet suffered damage and is now just over 10 feet wide.

“There is no doubt that the painting Sotheby’s sold in 2016 was owned by Friedrich and Maria Sarre,” Barry wrote to Simmons in August 2021.

The two men communicated several times after that, Barry said, including in an hourlong video call in which Simmons listened to him make his case. In an email from May 2022, Simmons wrote: “I wanted to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about you.” He then wrote, according to copies of that correspondence from Barry, “I’m briefing both buyer and seller in the Paris auction and will let you know when I have any news.”

Barry said that since then, Sotheby’s has stopped responding to his phone calls and correspondence, but he has no plans to drop the matter. He said he does not expect that anyone will simply hand over “Lepanto” to his family, but that he would like Sotheby’s to acknowledge the work’s provenance had been incomplete and to explore what solution might be fair to all parties involved.

“My family has a strong connection to this painting,” Barry said. “I feel an obligation to them.”
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