A painting more or less attributed to Modigliani returned to France by a German museum

Hanover, Paris. Following a restitution request established by the French Ministry of Culture for the painting Woman’s head (?), 1917 (?), by Amedeo Modigliani (?), present since 1949 in the collection of the City of Hanover (Germany) and since 1979 in that of the Sprengel Museum (Hanover), decision was taken mid- February by the municipal council of the capital of the State of Lower Saxony to return the work to the beneficiaries of its owner. The question marks left in parentheses by the German museum, as well as the discretion required by the recipients of this restitution (among whom are famous Parisian antique dealers), give this information an element of mystery.

Following the research of a contemporary artist

The circumstances of the rediscovery of this painting are, to say the least, hazardous. In January 2020, conceptual artist Raphaël Denis sent an email to three French specialists in property looted by the Nazis, about a painting “formerly attributed to Amedeo Modigliani, now kept in Hanover, whose (he) strongly suspects that it comes from spoliation. A significant part of his research is devoted to the spoliation of works during the German occupation. His work, supported by the Sator Gallery, takes the form of installations presented in different museums, notably at the Center Pompidou (which since 2020 has The normal law of errors, an accumulation of black monochromes symbolizing ideological censorship). Raphaël Denis was thus interested in the trafficking which took place between 1941 and 1945 at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, when the place was transformed into a central repository for works of art confiscated in France. And more precisely, to the numerous exchanges between the German merchant Gustav Rochlitz and Hermann Göring, number two in the Nazi regime. Unlike Reich experts, who disdain “contemporary” art produced in Europe in the 20th century, Rochlitz is perfectly aware of its value. He therefore exchanged works corresponding to the taste of the Nazis for major pieces confiscated from French collectors. Several works of modern art judged “degenerate” by the dignitaries of the Reich thus leave the Jeu de Paume to supplement the commercial fund of Rochlitz, while, in the opposite direction, those offered by the merchant (from an older period) are intended to join one of Göring’s residences.

Raphaël Denis tries to find the image of each of the paintings exchanged during this shameful swap. A work documenting this period put him on the trail of a painting stored at the Jeu de Paume during the war, which he learned thanks to the Internet was being presented in an exhibition at the Sprengel Museum. ” It would seem,he writes, that Woman’s head was offered by Modigliani to a Madame Castel, companion of a certain Michel George-Michel, from whose home it was seized in 1941. The canvas, appraised in 1942 by Jacques Beltrand, Göring’s expert in France, is part of a transaction negotiated with Rochlitz. The art dealer exchanges it, among four other paintings, for a 16th century panel intended for the leader of the Reich. Then it passed into the hands of an art historian linked to the Nazi party, before being acquired by Conrad Doebbeke, a collector who was not careful about the provenance of his acquisitions. The latter in turn donated it, with other works, to the City of Hanover in 1949. Preserved in the reserves of the Sprengel Museum, the painting was however removed from the collections available online, due to doubts about its authenticity. But what do we know about its French “owner”?

In the collection of a painter in his spare time

Michel Georges-Michel is the pen name of Michel Georges Dreyfus (1883-1985), author, journalist and painter in his spare time (the Museum of Modern Art in Paris keeps some of his paintings). Founder of the Prix de Rome for poets, this chronicler of the Paris school is close to the artists of the interwar period. In 1929, he dedicated to the “Montparnos”, as he named the creators of Montparnasse, a book of the same name, one of the protagonists of which was none other than… Modigliani. Among the works stolen by the Germans from his home, rue Clément-Marot in the 8th, are his portrait by Picasso as well as by Matisse, but also a large Chirico, a Dufy, two Kees Van Dongen… But curiously, in the list “approximate”, in his own words, which he addressed in 1945 to the authorities of the Artistic Recovery Commission, Michel Georges-Michel, returning from the United States, did not claim Woman’s head. How is it, in this case, that the painting has now been returned to its beneficiaries? “It is very common for victims to not provide a complete list of property stolen from them, especially when all or most of their apartment has been emptied, which is the case heresays David Zivie, head of the Mission for research and restitution of cultural property looted between 1933 and 1945 at the Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, the painting is inventoried and photographed by the German spoliation service ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Nazi office) as having been taken from Michel Georges-Michel, at his address. The ERR assigns it the number “MGM 1”. The inventories are clear. There is therefore no doubt about the origin of the painting and the time and place where it was stolen. »

On the ERR Project database, created and directed by the American historian Marc Masurovsky, this painting attributed to Modigliani is indicated as belonging to the collection of Michel Georges-Michel, but its caption also mentions the name of a certain Madame Castel , accompanied by a question mark. We can assume that this is Jeanne Castel (1888-1969), a gallery owner in Paris from the 1930s. She arrived from Aveyron with Juliette Lacaze, who was going to marry Paul Guillaume, a key Parisian art dealer. with whom Jeanne Castel initially served as secretary. We know, from the correspondence of Michel Georges-Michel, that close ties unite the latter to Paul Guillaume, to his wife (who later took the first name of Domenica), and therefore also to Jeanne Castel. “This question has of course been studied, However, assures David Zivie. Today, and for some time, the ERR Project file no longer shows Ms. Castel’s name. »

Unclear attribution

Let’s assume that the painting belonged to Michel Georges-Michel. Could it be that this female portrait typical of Modigliani’s style is an exercise in admiration “in the manner of”? The Sprengel Museum, for its part, cannot decide. “The attribution of the work is unclear, However, admits Reinhard Spieler, the director of the museum. It was acquired by the City of Hanover in 1949 as being by Modigliani. However, we have no knowledge of its provenance. It is not included in the first catalog raisonné published in 1929. Nor was it included in the second edition of the catalog raisonné, in 1956. This may be surprising and raise serious questions, because the work was highlighted as a Modigliani in the Cassel Documenta of 1955. The authors of the catalog raisonné should have noticed it, but they did not include it. In the 1960s, Italian restorers questioned Modigliani’s attribution for this work and called it a forgery. At the Sprengel Museum, it was always believed that the work was not authentic and it was only shown once in an exhibition called “Fake News”, among non-authentic works in our collection. On the other hand, we must admit that there is no proof of a forgery; the argument was based “only” on style analysis. »

For now, this Woman’s head should be exhibited for some time at the Sprengel Museum opposite an installation by Raphaël Denis. While waiting to return to France to experience new adventures, the financial stakes of which are not small.

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