Saturday 28 September 2013

Connundrums about Leutwitz "Praxiteles"

There are several things as somebody living in this neck of the woods that I simply do not understand about the apparent ease with which Cleveland accepted the collecting history supplied by the dealers that sold this object. Several things really do not ring true. I'd like to go through some of them and ask how Cleveland approached each of these conundrums. A key point is this one: 
Before the museum bought the sculpture from Phoenix Ancient Art, it obtained a written statement from German lawyer Ernst-Ulrich Walter stating that he found the sculpture lying in pieces in a building on a family estate he reclaimed after the fall of East Germany. Walter also reportedly said he remembered seeing the piece on the family estate in the 1930s.
Steven Litt, 'The Cleveland Museum of Art wades into global controversy over antiquities collecting with exhibition and catalog on its ancient bronze Apollo', The Plain Dealer September 27, 2013 
I've discussed Mr Walter (and, I think, not without significance, his museum) earlier here. He said he saw this statue in the 1930s, in Hitler's Germany that would be, which is the first record of its being above ground anyone has traced so far. Interestingly, it is reported that the object was seen in 1994 by Dr. Lucia Marinescu, former Director of the National History Museum of Romania who for some reason viewed the work in fragments "while touring the estate". It is not clear what the relationship was between Marinescu and Walter. What is also of note is that this report however was for some reason only published in 2003. In 1994 the sculpture was sold (very cheaply as a "garden ornament" by the hapless Ernst-Ulrich Walter - despite having been told by Marinescu that it was ancient) and subsequently reassembled and restored before passing through the hands of a Dutch dealer (still in 1994). The subsequent ten years of its collecting history are missing. Brodie says "It then dropped out of sight until it reappeared on the Swiss premises of Phoenix Ancient Art in 2002" - which as we note with interest was the timing of the publication of Marinescu's report of her examination of the statue in Leutwitz, what prompted her to dig out her notes and publish them at precisely this time? 
In the September 2004 issue of the Art Newspaper, the then Cleveland director Katharine Lee Reid was quoted as saying that the museum had exercised due diligence before the acquisition, but that Phoenix Ancient Art had not revealed to the museum details of the statue’s recent provenance. This reticence was understandable, she thought, because the company would want to protect its competitive advantage [...]  Rather confusingly, Phoenix Ancient Art’s proprietors Ali and Hicham Aboutaam subsequently stated in a letter published in the November issue of the Art Newspaper that “… it is acceptable and common practice, for obvious competitive reasons, to omit all but the last decade of ownership in publishing a history …”, though the last decade’s ownership history of the bronze was exactly what they had omitted to tell the Cleveland.
There is no information about an EU export licence for it (Neil Brodie, 'Cleveland Apollo Sauroktonos', Stanford ; see also Henry Adams, 'Questions About Apollo',, May 10, 2012).

The scientific tests cited in the catalogue (which I've not seen, would be glad to see the full report, is this the 'catalogue'?) are not relevant to the due diligence question, they were carried out after the purchase - who would use "solder" on a heavy object like this?

I'd also like to ask whether anybody from Cleveland has been to this hamlet (Leutwitz) and seen the house this was in the garden of?  I suggest it might be an eye-opening journey for the Cleveland staff, it's only about an hour from the Polish border, I'll take them there if they'd like to get in touch. 

We are not talking about a half-metre little garden ornament from a fountain, but a 1.7m tall chunk of ancient bronze. So here are some odd conundrums to explain away.

1) Some time before the 1930s, possibly a long time before that (since it was supposedly soldered onto a "17th-19th century" base, this thing turns up in a Saxon garden. So we are asked to believe that a previous owner of that estate had bought it either on the Grand Tour himself (in which country?) or  from someone else who'd been on one. Obviously there is no problem that we have no documentation of any of that, lots of people went Grandtouring. But has anyone looked? Were there any other items on the estate or in other properties owned by the family which would be Grand Tour items? Was that checked out? 

2) Let's assume that a pretty big classical Greek statue was on a rural estate in the state of Saxony in (say) the nineteenth century. Bought some time back in the mists of time beyond living memory of Ernst-Ulrich Walter's family. So this would be in cultured Saxony, not far (40 km) form the cultural centre of Dresden. Yet nobody noticed this classical Greek sculpture? Not a single person in the Saxon cultural elite spotted it, made a note of it in their diary, nobody sketched it, made an engraving, total silence? Is that not really a little difficult to believe given the cultural climate of precisely this region at precisely this time when Romanticism was in full flower? There was quite a bit of rivalry between the regional centres over the possession and display of classical antiquities, but this one somehow simply did not get noticed. A statue (we are now told) of Praxiteles.Odd that. How does Cleveland explain that?

3) Further on, the Weimar Republic. Saxony is now part of a greater Germany, accessible to scholars from other centres. This is still a period of interest in Classical antiquity, a period when no end of amateur antiquaries were active. We are talking about the German states here, not some cultural third world, an area of Europe where antiquarian studies not only were advanced, but to some extent leading the trend. Still the Leutwitz Saurokthonos goes unnoticed. Not a single guest to the house and estate mentioned a word to anybody else about the lovely old statue that stood in the garden (or was it inside in the hall?) not a mention in a diary, magazine, no museum official or gallery owner gets to hear of it. It stands in oblivion through the entire period of the Cleveland collecting history. Unlucky chance, Cleveland?

Perhaps the Americans might like to try and compile some statistics, how many certain Grand Tour items in Germany, and former regions of German (so like areas now in Poland) surviving to our times have ABSOLUTELY NO mention in the nineteenth and early twentieth documentation? I can tell them that my contacts with colleagues here who are looking at "the classical tradition" as an influence in the Enlightenement and Romantic culture in central Europe (and its a well-developed field here) inform me that although references may be difficult to track down, that's because there is a lot of scattered information to go through, not because its not there.
 4) 1933 Hitler comes to power. For much of the next decade his agents scour the whole of Germany and later occupied Europe for notable artworks to add to the collection for the proposed Linz Museum (so that among other things is what the US "Monuments Men" were engaged in finding and returning). Still the Leutwitz Saurokthonos somehow goes undetected.  Neither does any high official of the Nazi party make the object's owner an offer they can't refuse for its purchase. It just sits there ignored. Why?   Yet this is precisely when the lawyer says he saw the statue on open display on the estate. Only he saw it? Only he noted it?

5) The Red Army sweeps through Saxony in 1945. The Dresden collections are dismantled, some of them are taken to Moscow by the Red Army Trophy Commission (whence parts returned only in 1958). But the statue of Praxiteles was not spotted, not moved. Had it been hidden? Is there any documentation of its evacuation ? (As there is of many objects hidden by the German authorities at this time - in fact pretty full lists survive for parts of the region, I've seen them.)

6) On 7th October 1949, the German Democratic Republic was created from the Soviet Occupation zone (which included most of Saxony). The archaeological conservation services and the monuments protection services were set up and were increasingly well-organized in true German style, and from at least the late 1950s their work included surveying and inventorising historical buildings all over the DDR and publishing the inventories, as well as taking under state protection significant items where necessary.  Now I have met a number of the scholars involved in this kind of work, both archaeological as well as historical buildings (the latter admittedly fewer) and have always judged them to be professional, thorough and competent - despite the external limitations placed on them by virtue of where they lived and worked. Yet, odd, isn't it that in the whole period 1960 (let's say) to 1990 - thirty years, the Leutwitz Saurokthonos a classical Greek statue that had been (we are asked to believe) on the estate many many years, remained undetected.  Why? What went wrong? How many other classical Greek sculptures by Praxiteles on German estates remained undetected for a century or more until they suddenly "surface" on a surprised and delighted market many years later? I mean, how incompetent can the Germans be? 

7) We are told that Ernst-Ulrich Walter's family lost their estate, that it was confiscated by the State and the buildings put to other uses (state farm?). That they did not take a potentially valuable statue might not surprise us (depending on the circumstances). Some kind of official commission would have examined the buildings and estate. Apparently they did not spot the Praxiteles. Again, maybe that might not surprise us, Party aparatchiks were not always very cultured and enlightened folk back in those days. But then somebody else moved into the building, nobody bothered about the Praxiteles.  Again, peasant farmers maybe. We'd have to look into the history of the estate and that might provide an explanation why the statue continues to be in oblivion. Did Cleveland do that, has Cleveland done that? 

8)  November 1990, DDR collapses in a heap of chaos. Any visitor to the regions neighbouring Poland at this time would have observed a number of things. One of them is how a number of buildings had all the wiring and piping stripped out by metal looters, times were hard, the West did not pick up the tab and help out the Ossies straight away. But the several kilogrammes of saleable and valuable 'scrap' bronze lying in portable form on the floor of some building on a building in the throes of changing ownership were not remembered and not carted off to be melted down? Why? Again, we'd have to look into the history of the estate and that might provide an explanation why the statue stayed lying on the floor to be found by the estate's new owner, collector Ernst-Ulrich Walter. Did Cleveland do that, has Cleveland done that? 

The Aboutaams' collecting history supplied for this object suggests that several generations of German researchers were totally incompetent. So incompetent that a major artwork on an estate within cycling distance of a provincial centre like Dresden went completely unnoticed for a very long time despite the number of successive historical changes taking place which in other cases (almost one might say in every OTHER case) has led to some kind of record of a given piece of important art in a given place at a given time. Here all we have is an after-the-fact reminiscence by the lucky finder. 

This is very much a close parallel to the 1998 purchase of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask by SLAM from the same dealer. Here too was a signed statement by someone who was vague about the details when questioned, that the mask had been "seen" in Belgium (when in this case other documentation indicates it was still in Egypt) it then was also said to have been owned by two collectors of eastern European origin (Kaloterna and Jelinek), a story that I have earlier pointed out in this blog seems rather odd in the (documented) context of what Eastern European collectors were in fact able to acquire in this period and from where.

Perhaps these stories passed unremarked in America, where there seems from what I read others writing about the country where I live and work,  to be a prejudice that "behind the Iron Curtain" lived only wolves, rabid communists and peasant farmers of neanderthal intelligence. Having travelled a bit in the eastern bloc, I may agree that there was some variation across the region - but pre-1989 Poland and especially Eastern Germany were by no means the dark cultural backwaters that they are painted by their enemies. But the  Leutwitz Saurokthonos was (we are told) in 1930s Germany, and possibly had already been in Saxony since the base was put on it for display back in the nineteenth (eighteenth? seventeenth?) century. Yet, Cleveland asks us to believe that absolutely nobody saw it, absolutely nobody realised what it was in stupid old Yurope? Only the "superior" Americans are capable of that?

Vignette: With Dresden just down the road, how did it escape notice all that time? 

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