MoMA’s Problematic Provenances: A troubling history of acquiring works seized by the Nazis and sold to support the German war effort
November 20, 2011
The artwork that confronts visitors approaching the sculpture garden from the ticket desk of New York’s Museum of Modern Art is Auguste Rodin’s massive bronze sculpture of Honoré de Balzac. It was cast in 1954, and a year later, on May 3, 1955, at a ceremony in the museum’s sculpture garden, it was presented to MoMA by the “friends of Curt Valentin,” a New York art dealer who had died of a heart attack the previous year while traveling in Italy. Valentin had been one of the most influential dealers of modern art in the world, and 130 of his friends had joined together to buy the Balzac and donate it to the museum as a gift in his memory.
Alfred H. Barr Jr., MoMA’s founding director, was a longtime friend of Valentin’s and had had many business dealings with him. He told the museum’s patrons that day that he was “deeply grateful” and “greatly touched” by the gift of the Rodin and the honor it bestowed on the museum to be “the custodian of this memorial to Curt Valentin.” He said that MoMA, more than any other museum, was “indebted” to Valentin.
That MoMA would prominently display a monumental Rodin sculpture is hardly surprising. Far more intriguing, though, is the question of why MoMA would pay such an enormous public tribute to this controversial art dealer.
Curt Valentin, who was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany in 1937 and moved to New York, where—with authorization from the Third Reich, according to a November 14, 1936, letter from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts—he opened a gallery, first on West 46th Street and two years later, as his fortunes improved, on West 57th Street, to sell what the Nazis considered “degenerate art.” Valentin funneled the proceeds of the art sales back to Germany, which needed foreign currency to support its war economy. He was one in a group of Jewish art dealers in Germany and Austria who were allowed safe passage to New York in order to sell confiscated artworks and send the foreign currency they garnered back to the Third Reich. According to Stephanie Barron, senior curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and organizer of the landmark 1991–92 exhibition “‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” records kept by the propaganda ministry in Berlin prove that many works were sold to Valentin so that he could resell them abroad.
Museum officials such as Barr at MoMA and Hilla Rebay at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (precursor of the Guggenheim Museum) bought artworks from Valentin, usually at below market prices, by German artists such as George Grosz and Paul Klee that were confiscated or stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II. Those works are still in the permanent collections of both MoMA and the Guggenheim.
New York attorney Raymond J. Dowd, a partner in the firm Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller, and Jonathan Petropoulos, chair of the history department at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and author of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, contend that artwork stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II passed through Valentin’s Manhattan art gallery and ended up in MoMA’s permanent collection without compensation being paid to the artists or to the collectors from whom it had been stolen.
On behalf of two heirs of the artist George Grosz—Martin Grosz, his son, and Lilian Grosz, the wife of his late son Peter—Dowd sued MoMA in federal court in the Southern District of New York, in May 2009, to compel the museum to return to the heirs three works by Grosz in the museum’s collection: two paintings, The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse (1927) and Self-Portrait with a Model (1928), and a watercolor, Republican Automatons (1920). In response to Dowd’s suit, the museum claimed that it had proper title to all of the disputed works.
In January 2010, Judge Colleen McMahon tossed out the Grosz lawsuit on the grounds that the three-year statute of limitations for making the claim against MoMA had run its course. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld that decision. Dowd petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, but this past October the high court turned it down.
Dowd contends that the courts ruled in MoMA’s favor on a technicality—the statute of limitations—and failed to examine the underlying evidence…