The scholarly basis of the exhibition The Lives of Images. Provenances at Museum Berggruen was generated through a research project supported by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation). This project, carried out from 2015 to 2018, investigated the provenances of 135 pre-1945 art objects which previously formed part of the private collection of Heinz Berggruen, and are presently the property of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). The project looked at paintings, works on paper and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Henri Laurens. Over three years, the provenances of these works were systematically investigated in order to identify cultural property acquired as a result of Nazi persecution, particularly of Jewish owners.
Heinz Berggruen did not himself acquire any of the works before 1945. The earliest purchase by the art dealer and collector for which evidence can be found took place in 1954; the latest purchases can be dated to the year 2000. The majority of acquisitions – around 100 of the 135 artworks – were made after Berggruen ceased operating his gallery in 1980.
In the case of 83 of the works (around two thirds of those investigated), researchers found that forfeitures in the context of Nazi persecution were either extremely improbable or could be ruled out entirely by project’s end. Back in 2015, it had only be possible to reach this conclusion in relation to 38 works.
In the case of four works (by Pablo Picasso) researchers discovered that they had been confiscated from Jewish collectors in France by operatives of the German Embassy or the ERR: Seated Nude Drying Her Foot (1921) and The Yellow Jumper (1939) had belonged to Paul Rosenberg’s collection, Head of a Woman (1906-07) and Still Life with Blue Guitar (1924) to that of Alphonse Kann. All four works were treated as Nazi looted art and returned to their rightful owners immediately after the war. Only later did they enter Heinz Berggruen’s collection.
No cases were discovered in which artworks were clearly seized in the course of persecution by the Nazis and had not since been restituted. However, just over one third of the artworks have gaps in their provenances, meaning that at present, the evidence does not allow for a complete, continuous reconstruction of all former owners and the periods during which they owned the works. In the majority of these cases of works with gaps in provenance, there is no reason to suspect that they were surrendered as a result of persecution. In only four cases does the research suggest that such a persecution-related loss might have taken place. These works are Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Jaime Sabarté (1904) and Still Life with Glass and Playing Cards (Homage to Max Jacob) (1914), Georges Braque’s Still Life with Pipe (Le Quotidien du Midi) (1914) and Paul Klee’s Three Times Three Crosses (1925). On the basis of the publication of the research outcomes, it may in future become possible to close these gaps through further research or through information provided by external parties.
Besides the provenances of individual works, the research project has generated a large amount of information about the Nazis’s looting of art in France, art market structures in the early twentieth century in Europe and the USA, art circles in France, private collections in the USA during the 1930s and ’40s, the trade in “degenerate” art, and about complex systems for the administration of art estates (e.g. the Klee Society). Moreover, it has also been possible to expand our knowledge of the history of the critical reception of artists and the mechanisms by which they were made popular.
The research outcomes are presented in detail in this companion publication, Biographien der Bilder: Provenienzen im Museum Bergguen (The Lives of Images: Provenances at Museum Berggruen), edited by Petra Winter, Doris Kachel and Sven Haase, Deutscher Kunstverlag (ISBN 978-3-422-07482-8). Life stories of selected works as well as essays illustrate the history of Heinz Berggruen’s private collection, indicate former owners and introduce the complexities of provenance and provenance research. The volume also includes reproductions of the works, photos of versos, historical images, portraits of collectors and dealers, a comprehensive index of the works investigated with extensive provenance information and references to corresponding sources, and a guide to individuals referred to.