Oct 31, 2008

MIA Returns a Nazi-Looted Work

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) has made the decision to return this work Smoke Over Rooftops by Fernand Léger.  From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
The institute's saga began in 1997 when the museum received a letter claiming that the painting had been taken from Alphonse Kann, a legendary French collector who owned "tons of Picassos, Braques and late-19th-century Impressionist paintings," according to Patrick Noon, the institute's paintings curator. His story helped inspire a 1964 movie, "The Train," starring Burt Lancaster, about a trainload of art that the Germans tried to spirit away before the Allies liberated Paris in 1944.
Much of Kann's art was returned to him after World War II, but not the Leger. That painting was bequeathed to the museum in 1961 by Minneapolis businessman Putnam Dana McMillan, a General Mills vice president who bought it from the Buchholz Gallery in New York in 1951. No one questioned the picture's history. Nazi-era archives were sealed in France and inaccessible in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. 
Responding to the claim took years because the museum had to establish if it was legitimate. Was this Leger the same one Kann had owned? ("Smoke Over Rooftops" was a theme Leger painted at least six times.) If so, what had happened to the picture between 1939, when Kann fled Paris on the eve of war, and 1949 when a New York art dealer bought it from a French gallery? Did Kann sell it freely, or did the Nazis confiscate it?
There's no indication that this was a settlement of any kind, and a legal claim may have been difficult for the claimant as the work had been owned by the MIA since 1961.  It appears they voluntarily relinquished the work, though the story does make vague reference to a French Lawsuit.  Kaywin Feldmin, the MIA Director says "it was the right thing to do", which is a refreshing sentiment to hear from a Museum Director.   



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