Anyone who watched Kirsty Wark’s documentary on Sir William Burrell recently will have an appreciation of how the museum’s father valued only the best of work, and sought the advice and expertise of an array of antiquarians and collectors the world over. One such contact was John Hunt, who accrued numerous items for the shipping magnate. Among them was the Swiss tapestry. A contentious figure who has been subject to numerous yet unsubstantiated claims that he liaised with Nazi art dealers, Hunt offers a definitive link in the uncertain and unseemly journey which spirited the tapestry all the way to the southside of Glasgow.
It is a story which begins with the story of Emma Budge, a notable German-American collector who, along with her husband Henry, amassed more than 1,500 items including paintings, silver, tapestries, furniture, and porcelain. The Budge Collection, as it was known, was regarded as one of the most significant in all of Germany. Based in Hamburg, the Budges were – like Burrell – philanthropically minded, and donated a quarter of a million Reischmarks towards the creation of Frankfurt University. After Henry died in 1928, Emma, then aged 76, resolved to bequeath the cultural treasures they had gathered to Hamburg.
It was a noble intention, but one which would be thwarted by the Third Reich. Seven months after she passed away in February 1937, the Budge Collection was appropriated by the Nazis and systematically sold off for a fraction of its real worth. Over the course of three days at a so-called Jew auction in Paul Graupe’s Berlin establishment, the artefacts went under the hammer. Before long, the collection was broken up, its component parts scattered around public and private museums the world over.
One such spoil was the Swiss tapestry, thought to be have been created by a Dominican nun. Less than a year after the auction, on or before 8 August 1938, it was acquired by Burrell via Hunt. The item’s provenance does not include details of how Hunt took the tapestry into his possession. It may be that the truth behind those gaps in the chronology never emerge.
The ultimate decision over what should happen to the tapestry now rests with the Spoliation Advisory Panel, an expert group set up by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport to scrutinise the claims of heirs who lost possession of cultural rarities during the Nazi era. It has resolved claims involving some of the largest public art bodies in Britain, including both the British Museum and the British Library.
In the case of the tapestry, it is my understanding the panel was first notified of questions surrounding its past last October. When its findings emerge is unclear – the 11 member panel carries out its work in the strictest confidence, understandably so – but it is thought to be at the stage of asking supplementary questions, meaning an end is in sight, possibly before the end of the year.
Glasgow Life, the arms-length organisation which manages the Burrell Collection on behalf of its ultimate owners, Glasgow City Council, is working with the panel, and is committed to establishing the truth of what happened in those dark days towards the end of the 1930s. Those involved in the Burrell’s work will be aware of the spoliation process – only seven years ago, Glasgow City Council made an ex gratia payment over a painting attributed to Jean-Simon Chardin which was in the Burrell Collection.
The heirs of five former Jewish shareholders of an art gallery in Munich – comprising the grandchildren of three shareholders from one family, and the children of two shareholders from another family – successfully presented evidence that their forebears has been unfairly asked to pay 547,599 Reischmarks in taxation and other costs, a wholly unrealistic sum which led to its forced sale – through the same Graupe’s auction house – in June 1936.
In an affidavit sworn 12 years later, Herr Ludwig Schmausser, the tax inspector who handled the gallery’s affairs, related the sorry story. He said: “It is my opinion that this sum was far in excess of the amount of taxes owed. I do not know whether the relevant files still exist today. I heard that Regierungsrat Schwarz [the government official in charge of the tax office] accused the senior partner of criminal matters relating to fiscal or foreign exchange matters.
“No details were made known to me. It is my opinion that there were no grounds for instituting criminal tax proceedings; I have no information as to any incorrectness regarding foreign exchange. Such charges would not appear plausible to me given the fact that I am convinced that the senior partner was a person of absolute integrity.
“When I heard of the outcome of the aforesaid negotiation with Regierungsrat Schwarz, I was enraged as it was my conviction that the person that I held in such high esteem had suffered an injustice. At the time it was supposed to be a question of a declaration of submission. I recall that Regierungsrat Schwarz said that we did not find anything I the files that indicated tax misdemeanours.”
The gallery was left with no choice, and the painting was sold on 16 or 17 June 1936 to Julius Bohler, a Munich dealer. Sir William Burrell’s purchase took place shortly afterwards on 22 June. Though the Spoliation Advisory Panel made it clear Burrell was not culpable in these sinister proceedings, the fact remained that the painting belonged with the heirs. “While no moral blame attaches to the respondents, the claimants have established a sufficiently robust moral case to justify the award of a remedy,” its members stated.
It should be stressed that the Chardin case only came to light thanks to the council disclosing its items of uncertain provenance. In 2000, it carried out a search of its collections, eventually establishing no less than 55 so-called suspect items in the Burrell alone. In its report that year to the National Museum Directors’ Conference, it stated: “Burrell dealt extensively with British and European dealers known to have sold works of dubious provenance, so the threat to our good title, on at least some works, must be considered very real. Unfortunately our records often do not show the whereabouts of the works which allow us to prove a bill of health back to 1933.”
The following year, it published a list of the suspect artworks in detail which prompted the heirs of the Munich gallery owners to come forward. Such a course of action should be applauded. Indeed, both the council and Glasgow Life have demonstrated they are supporters of efforts to declare items of uncertain provenance, not least by listing a welter of items on Cultural Property Advice, an advisory service set up by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council which details artefacts with incomplete histories. The tapestry is included on that site.
Others questions remain, however. If upheld, the latest spoliation claim will stir debate over whether the local authority and Glasgow Life carried out a sufficiently thorough review of the provenance of the collection in the aftermath of the Chardin discovery. Did, for example, the search in 2000 stop short at paintings and drawings, or did it cover tapestries too?
Furthermore, sites such as Cultural Property Advice clearly play a vital role, but are they enough? Several people I have spoken to throughout my research, including Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, have told me they believe museums should be more pro-active in reuniting those works with their original owners or their heirs.
Whether that is their role at a time when our great cultural institutions are enduring vicious cutbacks remains a topic for debate. The Burrell Collection is a wonderful resource where I have happily whiled away many an afternoon, and it will continue to be one of the jewels in Glasgow’s cultural crown. But culture is more than dazzling masterpieces. It fuses the past to our present, and affords us an understanding of what has gone before. The latest spoliation claim clearly demonstrates that looted Nazi art is no mere spectre of history. The shameful legacy of the Third Reich continues to cast a shadow, and all of us are duty bound to ensure its victims receive moral justice and closure.