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Watching the Detectives

Scholars at area museums face an enormous, often tedious task: searching out records to trace the Nazi-era ownership of their works.

September 03, 2000|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Melinda R. McCurdy often finds herself alone in the hushed, high-ceilinged rooms of the mansion that is the historic centerpiece of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The 29-year-old UC Santa Barbara art history grad student, whose small office is tucked away behind the tall shelves of art catalogs and books at the San Marino estate, says she's come to enjoy the solitude.

Her summer internship, which began in early June, started out as a standard assignment for a budding art historian: Research the "provenance"--the ownership history--of the Huntington's British paintings in preparation for a catalog of the collection, a resource that would mostly be used by other art scholars.

Soon after arriving at the Huntington, however, McCurdy found herself assigned to a new project, this one of much more wide-reaching significance. Now, amid roses and rare manuscripts, camellia and cactus gardens, and afternoon teas, McCurdy has become a detective in what seems to be shaping up as the art world's crime of the century.

Like most other major museums in Los Angeles and across America, the Huntington is responding to the call to identify works of art--starting with paintings--that may have been looted by the Nazis during World War II.

In 1998, following a handful of well-publicized claims against museums by Jewish heirs, the American Assn. of Museum Directors issued guidelines for the search: Museums should seek out and make public gaps in the ownership history of art works that changed hands during the years 1933 to 1945, and they should make a prompt effort to respond to any claimant in an "equitable, appropriate and mutually agreeable manner."

At this point, the Huntington and other museums are mostly occupied with Step 1: combing through sales records, personal correspondence, photographs and art catalogs in the time-consuming task of finding and trying to fill those ownership gaps. McCurdy's summer internship has turned into a full-time job.

"It's a totally different kind of research," she says. "It's something that involves tracing a thread back through time. You can find something concrete--or you might not find anything at all. You can really think of a painting having all these past lives, through those who owned it. Who knows, it may have [had] an illicit life."

That the Huntington must grapple with the problem of art looted during World War II is actually a bit of a surprise. Railroad entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington, who founded the museum, acquired his collection well before Hitler rose to power. The Huntington's British and French 18th and 19th century artworks therefore have clear title--if they didn't change hands during the years of Nazi power, they couldn't have been looted and resold by the Third Reich.

But one addition to the museum has raised questions. The Adele S. Browning Memorial Collection, a group of 42 paintings, eight portrait miniatures and 30 decorative objects donated in 1978 by Judge Lucius Peyton Green and his wife, Mildred Browning Green, in honor of her mother. The Greens did most of their art collecting in the 1940s and 1950s.

Among the Browning works, the researcher who preceded McCurdy found five paintings with wartime ownership gaps. Of those, that researcher was able to close the gaps on all but two "suspects": Fragonard's "Head of a Boy" and Wouwerman's "Halt of a Hunting Party." The Greens purchased both paintings--which entered the art market in the late 1800s--from New York's Newhouse Galleries in the late '50s. But from 1933 to 1945, says McCurdy, "we know when the paintings entered various collections, but we don't know when they left the collections." McCurdy is still looking for the answers.

"Art historians used to be much more interested in what influence a work of art had on other art of the period--who owned it was of very little interest," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the American Assn. of Museum Directors. "The word 'provenance' has taken on new meaning."

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In late June, the Getty Museum became the first local institution to go public with the results of its completed 1933-45 provenance research, compiled in cooperation with the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress and the Art Loss Register, two important resources for WWII provenance data. The museum posted special Web pages identifying paintings with gaps. Of the Getty's 425 paintings, 250 are listed.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art began its research shortly after the association guidelines came out, hiring a full-time researcher, Amy L. Walsh, to examine 300 to 400 paintings (out of about 800 in its holdings) that changed hands during the war era. The museum plans to unveil the results of its Nazi-era provenance research on its Web site in late September or early October.

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