Tainted Lady

After a tumultuous history, including theft by Hitler, a Dürer nude came to rest in Canada—but now, where does she belong?

JOHN GEDDES June 18 2001

Tainted Lady

After a tumultuous history, including theft by Hitler, a Dürer nude came to rest in Canada—but now, where does she belong?

JOHN GEDDES June 18 2001

Tainted Lady


After a tumultuous history, including theft by Hitler, a Dürer nude came to rest in Canada—but now, where does she belong?


She does not look like much of a seductress, Albrecht Dürers Nude Woman with a Staff. But consider the men who have pursued her. There was the prince reputed to have been the most beautiful boy in Europe in the late 18th century, and the dictator who was inarguably the worst villain of the 20th. Closer to home, there was the legendary mining millionaire who acquired her in 1956 and gave her to the National Gallery of Canada. And today, there is the Polish ambassador who longs to send her back to his country, even if he doesn’t talk like an enamoured suitor. “Not perhaps the prettiest woman I have ever seen,” says Pawel Dobrowolski, sipping a demitasse of espresso in the sunroom of his embassy in Ottawa. “Dürer was a genius of drawing, not of feminine beauty.”

What she lacks in allure, though, this austere little nude more than makes up for in historic intrigue. The piece was part of a great Polish collection, 24 drawings known as the Lubomirski Dürers, which was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and later scattered to collections around the world. Next week, the National Gallery’s board of trustees is slated to discuss her next move. Their deliberations are part of an international trend, as major museums consider how to make good on their recent pledges to return art stolen during the war. What the Ottawa gallery decides could have wide repercussions: Poland hopes the Canadian example will set a precedent as it pursues the return of rest of the drawings, which have found their way into collections including the British Museum in London and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The principle that galleries should root out and return tainted art was widely endorsed by museum directors after a seminal conference on Nazi-looted treasures held in Washington in 1998. Canada’s National Gallery, like many major art institutions around the world, probed its collection and found more than 100 works with gaps in the record of ownership—what curators call “provenance”—for the crucial years between 1933 and 1945. Last December, the gallery posted a list of the questionable pieces on its Web site, encouraging anyone who suspected a piece was stolen to come forward with information or make a claim. Nude Woman with a Staff wasn’t on the list, but the Polish government knew about the National Gallery’s drawing, and in March made a formal case for its return—the first major test of the gallery’s provenance program.

There is no dispute about the fundamental claim that the drawing was plundered. “This is very clear,” Pierre Théberge, the gallery’s director, told Macleans. “We know when it was stolen, by whom it was stolen and for whom it was stolen.” Those bare, chilling facts: on July 2, 1941, by a notorious Nazi art thief named Kajetan Muhlmann acting on an order from Hermann Goring, for Adolf Hider.

The theft was the pivotal episode in the drawings long life. It was created around 1500, which means Dürer, regarded as the greatest German artist of the Renaissance, probably drew it in his 30s, when he was emerging as a master. The coolly analytical study, done in pen and brown ink with a brown wash and measuring 9.6 cm by 23.5 cm, was acquired some time in the early-19th century by Prince Henryk Lubomirski, a Polish aristocrat who owned a palace in cosmopolitan Vienna. “The prince was himself, I would say, a work of art,” says Ambassador Dobrowolski, who was a historian before he became a diplomat. “Prince Henryk was considered the prettiest child of Europe— painted and sculpted by the greatest artists of his age.” The prince who had been a child model grew up to be an avid collector whose prize acquisitions included


Rembrandts, along with the Dürers. He was also proud of his Polish roots. In 1823, he signed an agreement with another art patron eager to promote Polands culture, Count Josef Max Ossolinski, to make his art part of Ossolinski’s foundation. As a result, the Lubomirski museum was founded in the city known as Lwow to Poles, Lemberg to Germans and Lvov to Russians—a central European crossroads.

The history of Lviv, as the city is now called as part of Ukraine, is not a placid one. The Poles established control in 1349, then the Cossacks took the city in 1648, followed by the Swedes in 1704. Austria got the town in 1772, then Russia occupied it in 1914-15. There was a brief Ukrainian interlude in 1918, before the Poles took it back. The Soviets seized the city in 1939, and then in 1941 the Germans came. After the war, the border shifted and the city became part of the Soviet Ukraine. Poles seeking to keep their Polish citizenship had to get out. Among those who fled with next to nothing were Pawel Dobrowolskis parents, whose family roots in Lwow were many generations deep. His voice gets thick with emotion when he describes what they lost—perhaps explaining why he is so determined now to get something of Lwow back for Poland.

When Hitler’s troops marched into Lwow, they brought his corrosive ideology. Grabbing art deemed importantly German—and Dürer easily qualified— was Nazi policy. Göring’s handwritten order to his agent, Muhlmann, to take the Lubomirski drawings has survived. The National Gallery has a copy of that note, provided by the Poles with the extensive documentation of their claim. Once he got the Dürer drawings, Hider is said to have kept them in his office.

Why, given what is known about how they left their rightful home, is it not obvious that the drawings should now be given back?

The glib answer is that they already were. At the end of the war, the Allies found the Dürer drawings with a cache of ill-gotten treasure the Nazis had hidden in an Austrian salt mine. (“A very interesting joke of history,” notes Dobrowolski: “The Lubomirski family made their fortune in 16th-century Poland in the salt business.”) The National Gallery’s Théberge explains that the formal policy of the Allies was to return looted property to the countries from which the Nazis had taken it. But that did not happen in this case. “Don’t forget,” Théberge says, “that the relationship between the United States and Communist Poland was not too warm.” U.S. officials decided to give the drawings to Prince Georg Lubomirski, a descendant of Prince Henryk, who was living after the war in Switzerland and the French Riviera.

Dobrowolski says there was never any chance of the dispossessed aristocrat returning the art treasures to his homeland. “First of all, he was stretched for cash,” the ambassador says.

“Second, Poland was overrun by the Communists, and somebody like him would not envisage giving back anything—communism was alien to him.” The exiled Prince Georg sold the drawings, most of them to the venerable London art dealer Colnaghi in 1954.

He died in 1978.

In the mid-1950s, Toronto mining magnate Joseph Hirshhorn bought Nude Woman with a Staff.

Hirshhorn’s life story is of a piece with the rest of the tale of the Lubomirski Dürers. Born in Latvia in 1899, he immigrated with his family to Brooklyn as a child. At 16, he became a stockbroker on Wall Street.

At 18, he acquired his first works of art: two Dürer etchings. In 1933, Hirsh-

horn was drawn to Toronto by the prospect of promoting mines. He made a small fortune in gold, then a very large one as financier to Ontario’s burgeoning uranium mining industry. His art collection grew with his wealth. But despite those first two Dürer etchings, Hirshhorn’s passion was for the modern, which may explain why he was inclined to donate his Dürer drawing to the National Gallery rather than covet it for himself. (The bulk of his huge collection, including major works by Picasso, Matisse and Moore, went to Washington’s Smithsonian Institution in the late-1960s. Hirshhorn died in 1981.)

From the outset, the National Gallery knew the prized Dürer drawing from Hirshhorn had once been in Nazi hands. But the fact that it had been returned to Prince Georg Lubomirski after the war seemed to have erased that stain. Théberge says it was

not until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when art archives in Eastern Europe were opened to international scholars, that the more complete story of wartime looting began to be re-examined. Two influential books on the subject appeared, The Rape of Europam 1995 and The Lost Museum in 1998.Then came the Washington conference in 1998, and museum directors were suddenly taking the subject seriously. Théberge served notice of his willingness to give up treasures earlier this year when the National Gallery returned to China a Buddhist frieze that had been stolen—nobody is sure when—from a cave temple.

Théberge will not say how he plans to advise his board of trustees next week on what to do with the Dürer. Along with the drawing’s involved saga, there are technicalities of some importance. He has studied the rules that governed the old Ossolinski

foundation. His understanding is that the original agreement between the two 19th-century aristocrats stipulated that if the institute was dissolved and not reconstituted within 50 years, then Prince Henryk’s descendants could take back his collection. The 50 years certainly had not passed when Prince Georg Lubomirski retrieved the drawings in the early days of the Cold War. What’s more, in 1995 the Polish government reconstituted the Ossolinski institute, now based in Wroclaw, less than five decades after it had effectively disappeared as an independent entity. “The Poles took the 50-year rule seriously,” says Théberge. “They are systematically seeking the return of these drawings.”

But Théberge is not primarily concerned about such details. “In order to make a restitution of art looted during the war, it is only a matter of ethics, not a legal obligation,” he says. “There are no court cases. Nobody is suing anybody.” Asked to characterize Poland’s position, Dobrowolski agrees it is an appeal to conscience, not a demand based on any law. “Obviously, my position precludes any possibility of putting any pressure on the gallery,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “If I harbour any hope, it is that the board of trustees will make the decision to return it. Ottawa has been the first place to be as open as this, and this is extremely praiseworthy.”

How the other major museums in the United States and Europe holding Lubomirski Dürers would react if the Poles succeed in Canada is a matter for conjecture. “We do have an inquiry from the Polish government,” said Harold Holzer, vice-president for communication and marketing at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has three of the Dürers. “Ifs a very complex case, as so many Second World War cases can be.” But he said remming the Dürers is not “under active consideration.” Asked if the museum would be influenced by any decision taken in Ottawa, Holzer said: “I’m not going to comment on anything that


would happen in that regard. It would be presumptuous and premature.”

Through it all, Nude Woman with a Staff continues to rest quietly. Too delicate to hang permanently on a museum wall, the little drawing in its old dark frame lies in a drawer in the elegantly modern, hushed room where the National Gallery stores its works on paper. Anyone can make an appointment to see her; few do, aside from the occasional visiting scholar. To get sentimental about Dürer’s aloof, intellectual study in human proportions might seem absurd. Yet knowing a little about where she has been, it is hard to feel that this tranquil corner of the New World, so far from the old salons and batdefields, is truly her home.

Read our previous report about looted art