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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

13. "No known provenance prior to its appearance at auction..."

Updated: May 26, 2020

Eustache Le Sueur, The Rape of Tamar, about 1640

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This morning's New York Times features an article titled "The Mystery of the Painting in Gallery 634". A German researcher, Joachim Peter, has pieced together a paper trail for a dramatic six foot by five foot painting of an Old Testament scene, the rape of King David's daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon. The Rape of Tamar has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection since 1984. But before that, its whereabouts was unknown for two hundred years.

Here's how the Times explains it:

Siegfried Aram was a successful lawyer in Heilbronn, Germany, who owned a country house in the Black Forest. He left Germany and came to New York by way of Naples and Gibraltar, arriving on the ship Conte de Savoia on August 29, 1934. Aram's legal qualifications did not transfer to the U.S., so he turned what had been a hobby into a career. He became an art dealer.

Aram left his mother behind in Heilbronn to settle affairs--and she sold the country house to a man named Oskar Sommer. That's where the confusion about the painting begins: Sommer held that the painting, which hung in Aram's country house, was sold with the house. Aram declared in court, more than once, and it did not. Aram said he had bought the painting in London in the 1920s. He sued before, during, and after the war, without success. Sommers died in 1965; Aram, in 1978.

The painting passed to Oskar Sommer's daughters who, in 1983, brought it to auction at Christie's in London. A group of dealers bought it for 108,000 pounds, or about $485,000. The next year, The Rape of Tamar joined the Met's collection. Its provenance on the museum's website reads:

Two centuries unaccounted for. Paintings do not stay in the same family for two centuries unless the family is unusually stable in its fortunes and living situation--stable like, for instance, the English royal family. It is difficult from the perspective of 2020 to imagine that no one at the Met in 1984 wondered where this painting had been, who had owned it, who had chosen to carry out daily activities like reading the newspaper and deciding what to eat for dinner under its bright, buoyant, uncomfortable to our modern eyes, violence.

And yet, as the historian Lynn Nicholas helpfully explained to the Times, few people if any thought about what we now call Nazi-looted art in the 1970s and 80s. “Unless somebody made a noise, it would not have even occurred to a dealer to go back and check.” Christie's auction house, when asked to comment for the Times story, said (and you can almost hear the sigh) “in the early 1980s, the vital databases, registries, and digitized records necessary for thorough restitution research did not yet exist.”

I still recall the relief that washed over me when I learned that Flowers and Fruit had been in the Haggin's collection since 1939. It was exactly the sort of painting that could have been looted or lost during the Nazi era; uncounted and now perhaps uncountable numbers of paintings from the post-Impressionist era were stolen and destroyed, or stolen and lost, or stolen and hidden away in secret hiding places, from the early 1930s through the end of World War II. One of the paintings with which Flowers and Fruit was sold did disappear: instead of finding its way into American hands, Six Peaches went to Huinck & Scherjon, a gallery in Amsterdam. And from there, it was lost. That is, we know it's not at the Haggin. It could be in some other out of the way regional museum, or it could have gone up in flames when the Nazis took Amsterdam.

This morning's article in the Times concludes with links to the documents that Joachim Peter uncovered in his research. The documents are digitized, and that, in part, is why we can tell this story. We can find out more because of the digital world. Anyone with access to the internet and research skills can follow trails. Maybe that allows us to care more now about where things came from, where art objects spent their lives, who owned them and who lost them. We care for different reasons, maybe to understand where our families came from and what they lost on their way. Or maybe to build a deeper and richer world of knowledge, where art objects are attached to their stories and can tell us more about where they, and where we, started, and how they, and we, got here.

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