Selective Context: the Passive Approach to Researching Provenance, Part 1 – Intro to the Leopold Collection

According to the organization’s press release, the Leopold Collection was acquired “over five decades [and] were consolidated in 1994.” The government of the Republic of Austria joined forces with Rudolf Leopold to found the Leopold Museum Private Foundation. The Foundation set about making the collection available to the public and Leopold received the Cross of Honor for Art and Science, First Class. The museum opened on September 21st, 2001 and showcases a number of 19 and 20th century Austrian artists (“Press”).

On the surface, this seems like a harmless story about how a museum might come into existence – a modern benefactor provides a collection and the government provides a space to house it. The United States set up the Smithsonian Institution in a similar fashion after James Smithson’s only heir passed away. A clause went into effect bequeathing Smithson’s entire estate to the United States federal government (“History”). While the reason Smithson, a British citizen, was motivated to leave his considerable estate to the U.S. government remains a mystery, few doubt his intentions were good.

This is not exactly the case with Leopold. Leopold, who acquired much of his collection at auction, is believed to have a significant number of artworks that were stolen after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 (Prodhan). During the Second World War, Hitler retained works that he deemed appropriate for his Germany and coerced other European countries into purchasing the ‘degenerate’ art by burning almost five thousand works of art (Barker). Works of art were either sold directly by the Nazi regime or stolen by high-ranking officers to sell or display (Barker).  In 2007, “Austria revealed the existence of more than 10,000 paintings and sculptures, hidden since 1945 in monasteries,” says Barker, “London dealers close to the ‘restitution’ business predict that 100 to 150 paintings will come off the walls of German museums in the next 25 years and be restored to the families of their original owners” (Barker).

Thanks to the very public resignation of Tobias Natter in 2013, we know that the question of rightful repatriation and Nazi affiliation is far from over for the Leopold Collection. Leopold himself “resisted restitution claims until his death in 2010” (Prodhan). Natter came on during the period of restitution that followed and oversaw the process of establishing the provenance of the 6,000 pieces in the collection (Prodhan). The Austrian government is inextricably tied up in this process as a result of its purchase of the collection before transferring the works to the foundation (Prodhan).

Former director Natter announced his departure “after some of [the museum’s] most senior staff joined a controversial new foundation associated with Klimt’s illegitimate son… whose works included Nazi propaganda” (Prodhan). There is little reason to question the scrutiny that the Leopold Museum and Foundation are experiencing, but what of the countries that have chosen to exhibit their works?

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