Under scrutiny: a pair of gates made of silver and iron, gilded with gold and embossed with patterns of flowers, birds, scrolls, and medallions portraying Biblical figures. Believed to be a gift from Catherine the Great, it was made in 1784 for an Orthodox church at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra cave monastery in Kyiv, then under Russian rule.
Today, the gates belong to the Gilbert Collection, which was donated to the British government in 1996. Most of it is now on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. With wealth amassed from dressmaking and real estate, the late Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert had assembled a treasury of European decorative arts that includes snuff boxes, portrait miniatures, and micro mosaics.
For decades, the collection’s items have been exhibited without too many questions arising about the history of their ownership. But in 2018, the V&A employed Jacques Schuhmacher, a thirty-seven-year-old German historian, as a provenance curator. His task: to find out whether any of the items once belonged to Jews who had been systemically stripped of their property and their livelihoods by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. His work might bring them or their families some restitution.
However, the Gilberts’ records often only detailed an object’s last owner. A son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to Britain, Arthur must have been aware of the existence of Jewish-owned art looted by the Nazis, but he continued what Schuhmacher describes as “established practice”—to attend to ownership only when it related to a historically significant individual who enhanced an object’s value. Some of the collection’s items were once owned by the Tsars of Russia, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great of Prussia.
“The lack of a complete provenance doesn’t mean there’s a problem. It just means we don’t know,” Schuhmacher says.
It’s into this shadowy chasm that he steps. But for the gates, a sales invoice issued to Arthur by London-based antique dealer S.J. Phillips in 1973 provides a clue: They once belonged to the American media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Schuhmacher discovered that Hearst had purchased the gates in 1935 from Goldschmidt Gallery in London—a reputable Jewish dealership founded in 1853 in Frankfurt, with branches throughout Europe. The sale’s timing coincided with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany, which excluded Jews from citizenship by defining Reich citizens as those with “German blood” and were among a series of laws excluding German Jews from social, cultural, and economic life.
“So, there was reason to be extra attentive to the circumstances of sale,” says Schuhmacher.
In the period before the Third Reich, Arthur Goldschmidt and his brother Julius had taken on the family business in Berlin and Frankfurt, respectively. In 1933, Arthur was forced out of his gallery to make room for the Association of German Artists, but he found new premises and was able to carry on—for a while. By the end of 1936, Julius had emigrated to London and Arthur to Paris as they faced increasing pressure under the Nazi regime. Much of the property they left behind was seized by the Gestapo and auctioned off; in 1937, they were forced to liquidate their company. That year, Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Despite this, since the Goldschmidts themselves sold the gates to Hearst, is their provenance considered “safe”? Schuhmacher hesitates. “What I would say is: We simply do not know enough.”
He ponders the fact that they were sold in London. Had they made their way there from Germany, or were they acquired in London? Nothing is known about how they came to the Goldschmidts. In fact, nothing is known about them after they left the Kyiv monastery in 1918 until Hearst acquired them. The Goldschmidts’ records did not survive. The gates do not appear in the Nazis’ records, nor in the restitution claims submitted by the brothers after the war. And a sale through an art dealer always raises more questions—they could have sold the gates on behalf of a Jewish person.
“The fact that, seventy-six years after the end of the Second World War, we’re still talking about this shows you how complicated this is,” Schuhmacher says.
Unlike other museum curators who wrestle with provenance issues as part of their overall duties, Jacques Schuhmacher, a thirty-seven-year-old German historian employed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dedicates himself wholly to the matter of provenance. He is trained in the history of war crimes, not art.
His appointment represents one more step in an ongoing quest that intensified with the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, which Schuhmacher describes as having had a “tectonic” impact on museum practices. Previous attempts to restitute Nazi-looted art hadn’t gone far enough, and a large number of stolen objects continued to circulate on the international market. But efforts became easier as American cultural interest in the Holocaust grew—with the release of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and the Eichmann trials of 1961—and as archives opened up across Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain’s fall. The passage of time also helped victims and their families to begin processing their trauma and reclaiming what was stolen from them. Today, when acquiring art, the expectation is for museums to obtain an unbroken chain of provenance whenever possible.
Of the approximately 1,200 items in the Gilbert Collection—an assemblage of European decorative arts donated by the late Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert—Schuhmacher has identified eighty-five objects with gaps in their ownership. “It could be an object that was auctioned in Germany in the 1930s, or was in the possession of a Jewish collector before the Nazis seized power,” he says. None of the items has been restituted, however, due in part to how the procedure works. Schuhmacher doesn’t decide what happens to an object with troubling provenance. A recommendation—to restitute, compensate, or publicly acknowledge—is made to museums by a UK governmental panel, which only deliberates when a victim’s descendants make a claim on an object in a public collection.
“That gives me a lot of freedom because I don’t have to think about what it all means for the collection,” Schuhmacher says. He can focus on his research and help the V&A communicate it to the public. Whereas provenance was once seen as an administrative detail, it’s now something museums can tell visitors about, through publications and exhibitions, before the full picture is clear.
For him, the gaps are the story.
A solemn young man stares back from a seventeenth-century enamel portrait miniature, acquired by the Gilberts in 1979. Digging through archives, Schuhmacher traced it to a 1939 catalog of Hans W. Lange, an auction house in Berlin. This led him to the object’s owner, Adolph List, and a poignant discovery.
Adolph was born in 1861 to Protestant parents, who had converted from Judaism, and was himself christened as an infant. “He had lived as a Protestant his whole life, had not even told members of his family he was of Jewish descent,” Schuhmacher says. “His children were low-ranking members of the local Nazi party in Leipzig.”
In the centuries preceding Hitler’s rise to power, many Jews in what became present-day Germany had converted to Protestantism, to assimilate and gain citizenship rights. “But Adolph made the painful discovery that in the Nazis’ worldview, what matters is your blood. It’s like political zoology. A lot of the Jews who were murdered, deported, or driven into exile did not consider themselves Jewish at all.”
A postcard sent in 1937 to the board of the company that Adolph founded ultimately exposed him. Shareholders had begun claiming Adolph was Jewish, which he denied. This time, the sender—an anonymous shareholder—requested Adolph’s dismissal, charging that his being Jewish would harm the company. Adolph was forced to resign. The board also deemed his wife to be Jewish and refused to pay her his pension when he died the next year.
But Klara Helene was not Jewish. To prove it, she submitted herself to a check by the Reich Agency for Genealogical Research, which certified she was of “German or related blood.” That she had to play to Nazi race logic to claim what was hers seems a tragedy. But this entitled her to Adolph’s pension, and to the proceeds of his art collection: She auctioned the portrait miniature in 1939.
“A lawyer would say: It was sold by somebody who was not Jewish, she wasn’t persecuted by the Nazis, that’s the end of the story,” Schuhmacher says. “But I don’t think it should be. That his whole world fell apart because of an anonymous postcard is something worth talking about.”
A table clock from the nineteenth century, assembled in architectural detail with silver and ebonized wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory. There are great gaps in its provenance before Arthur Gilbert acquired it in 1987, but Schuhmacher found that it once belonged to Nathan Ruben Fränkel, who founded a watch dealership in Frankfurt in 1874. It’s not clear when, where, or how he acquired the clock and what he did with it, but when he died in 1909, some of his belongings were passed on to his family.
Looking into the rest of the Fränkels, Schuhmacher became most interested in Friedrich and Klara: also owners of a watch business based in Frankfurt, who were persecuted by the Nazis. In 1938, some wholesalers refused to supply them; customers went elsewhere, forcing the Fränkels to shut down and sell their house before emigrating to France. Two years later, German troops arrived and requisitioned their apartment. They moved, but in 1942 the Gestapo came looking for them. The Fränkels escaped, and for years after continued to flee from place to place to avoid deportation to Nazi concentration camps, surviving with the help of acquaintances. When they returned to their apartment after France’s liberation in 1944, they found almost nothing left.
However, it is not known if they ever had the clock. In the inventory they had to fill out when they left Germany—to obtain official permission to take their property with them—a desk clock appears, but there’s no way to know if it’s the same one. “It could mean they received it, but didn’t include it in the inventory. It could mean that the clock was sold after Nathan Ruben Fränkel’s death. It could mean that a different member of the family had it and then sold it,” Schuhmacher says. It’s simply not known what happened to it before it resurfaced with an anonymous Milwaukee collector in 1975.
Despite the impossibility of definitive answers, it’s the human stories unearthed in this process that are most important for Schuhmacher. “Provenance can tell fascinating but also deeply moving stories about the worlds that these objects inhabited as they passed through different hands.”
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.