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Art sleuths on Nazi trail

Could priceless stolen pieces hang in Winnipeg Art Gallery?

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The Winnipeg Art Gallery's Stephen Borys wants to know if any artworks the Nazis stole hang in his building. A new pilot project will try to find out.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

The Winnipeg Art Gallery's Stephen Borys wants to know if any artworks the Nazis stole hang in his building. A new pilot project will try to find out. Photo Store

Does art stolen by Nazi soldiers from European galleries and private owners grace the walls of the Winnipeg Art Gallery?

A federally funded pilot project co-ordinated by the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) aims to find out.

Stephen Borys, the WAG's director and CEO and also CAMDO president, said the $200,000 provided by the federal government, along with another $200,000 privately raised by the six galleries involved, will allow them to do "provenance research" -- determine the documented history of each painting's ownership through the years.

Borys said the two starting points for the project are works created in 1945 and earlier for which the provenance is not known between the years 1933 and 1945.

"This is something we have been doing for years -- we do provenance research all the time -- so it's nothing new," he said.

"But this program allows us to bring in two internationally renowned researchers to work with our team. We can start looking in a much broader way."

The issue is topical -- this weekend, the movie The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, opens in theatres.

It's based on the true story of a platoon ordered by then-U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt to recover and return to the owners artworks the Nazis stole and took to Germany before and during the Second World War.

"There's a heightened presence," Borys said. "And now, 70 years after the Second World War, the people who would know the pieces are theirs are gone."

But he said artworks can be returned to their rightful owners by something as simple as a note in a diary describing a piece.

Catherine Chatterley, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Manitoba, said it's believed the Nazis stole hundreds of thousands of art pieces -- as much as 20 per cent of the artworks in Europe.

"When the Germans invaded the countries of Europe, they raided museums, art galleries, libraries and research institutes, stealing works of art, books, religious objects, coins, medal collections -- anything of value," she said.

"France and Italy were particularly affected by the greatest theft in European history, but so was the Soviet Union, with over 173 museums raided...

"The collections were first picked over by (Nazi leaders) Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler for their own private use, then the remainder was transported back to Germany. The most valuable items, mostly paintings and sculptures, were held in salt mines and caves so as to be protected from aerial bombardment."

Chatterley said the haul included works by Matisse, Dégas, Picasso, Botticelli and Raphael and marble sculptures by Donatello and Michelangelo.

She said stolen artworks are still being found, citing a case about two years ago where more than 1,400 pieces were discovered in a Munich apartment.

"The apartment owner's father had worked for the Nazis, trading in their stolen artwork."

Chatterley said it's not unusual for major art galleries to have art with provenance voids during the war years.

That includes the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with more than 400 works, the Art Institute of Chicago, with more than 500, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, with 393.

Pointing at a large painting entitled Madonna, painted in 1662 by Juan Carreno de Miranda, Borys said: "We're looking at 300 years of provenance.

"One of the first things to be destroyed or moved during war is culture."

Borys said gallery acquisitions have changed in the last few decades.

"If we want to buy an 18th-century painting today, we want to know where it was. We would never buy a piece of art now that has large gaps in its provenance.

"The biggest challenge is to get private collectors to co-operate. You can't force a private collector to say, 'I will co-operate.' "

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 B1

History

Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 6:49 AM CST: replaces photo

10:02 AM: Corrects spelling of Göring

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