Eve Kahn tells the story of a family member’s Jan Steen painting clouded by a “red flag” provenance. The sad irony of the story is that the Jewish family who brought the painting to the United States, and seemed to have purchased it in 1933, now have a work that cannot be sold or donated because of the limited research available to make proper determination of good title or to locate those who ought to be the rightful owners.
Because a notorious Dutch collaborator, Dirk Menten, is listed on the work’s provenance, the painting is stuck in limbo:
The more I dig, the more I find murk. Maybe buried somewhere out there is Menten’s receipt from a reputable dealer, dated before the Nazis invaded Poland or Belgium, the two countries the painting seems to track back to. Or maybe descendants of some Nazi victims have seen this very panel in photos of their forebears’ home.
Among Holocaust restitution researchers, Menten is known as a “red flag name” that signals “toxic provenance.” There are thousands of objects in this kind of predicament, items that changed hands under unclear circumstances in Nazi-occupied Europe. More are entering this gray area as searchable records — wartime exhibition listings, auction catalogs, archives from dealers, collectors and historians — appear online.
Lynn H. Nicholas, the author of “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War,” told me she is glad I’m writing this article to illustrate the frustrations of research in the field. Nonexperts often think that art unmoored during wartime can be restituted easily, she said, but the process can be full of dead ends.
Does My Family Own a Painting Looted by Nazis? (The New York Times)