How Nazi-looted Treasures Ended in a Jewish-Owned Collection
LONDON (Jewish News) – One day in 1969, Arthur Gilbert, a Jewish immigrant from London to Los Angeles, wandered into an antique store on the city’s upscale Rodeo Drive – and fell in love.
Specifically, he fell in love with an almost forgotten and surprising art form – what Gilbert called micromosaics – thousands and thousands of tiny pieces of glass that form an image, almost indistinguishable from a painting. .
The technique, developed in Rome in the 18th century and applied to objects ranging from exquisite table tops to snuffboxes, has become the core of one of the most extraordinary decorative arts collections of any museum: the Rosalinde and Arthur collection. Gilbert, on permanent loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum since 2008.
Even without the “mania for micromosaics”, the Gilbert story is extraordinary.
The beautiful Rosalinde Gilbert met the beautiful Abraham Bernstein – as he was then called – at a ball held at Madame Tussauds in London; they married in 1934.
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With just £ 500, the couple launched a women’s haute couture house, Rosalinde Gilbert Limited, based on their designs. Because everyone addressed Arthur, as he had become, like Mr. Gilbert rather than Mr. Bernstein, he changed his name legally – and he eventually became Sir Arthur Gilbert at the end of his long life.
In 1945, the fashion business was so successful that the Gilbert’s moved to California, intending to retire. But Arthur’s genius for making money from real estate led him to a second career, becoming a real estate mogul and benefiting from the postwar Los Angeles construction boom.
But as Dr Jacques Schuhmacher, Curator of Provenance and Spoliation at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) explained, the Gilberts began to build their collection “at a time when the gaps in provenance [the detailed ownership history of an artwork] were not seen as a problem.
And so, unwittingly, Arthur and Rosalinde, themselves children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, did not ask if what they were buying could have been looted by the Nazis from other collectors. Jews during the Holocaust.
After Rosalinde’s death in 1995, Arthur donated the collection to Great Britain. His home was originally at Somerset House before moving to the V&A.
It is now administered by a trust, which always purchases items to add to the collection.
Schuhmacher, a Frankfurt-born historian who received his doctorate from Oxford, arrived at the V&A in 2018 to begin meticulous research into the 1,000 objects in the Gilbert Collection.
He became both an art lover and a detective, following the paper trail through a dusty archive, identifying the original owners of an object and then trying to find what became of it between 1933, when the Nazis came to power. , and 1945, the end of the war.
To date, Schuhmacher, in collaboration with the curator of the Gilbert collection, Alice Minter, estimates that there are 80 objects in the collection which have gaps in their provenance.
Not all of these shortcomings will not have been due to the Nazi looting, but Schuhmacher has identified at least eight of them with what he calls “hidden stories” – and each object has a fascinating story.
Just trying to explain the story behind each piece of art was a challenge in itself, as the V&A normally insists that each of its objects is only captioned in 60 words. In this case, a special exemption had to be granted for the explanatory captions to double this figure.
One of the most striking objects is a lavish silver and inlaid ivory clock, said to have been made in 1690, but not assembled in its present form until 1880.
It was once owned by a successful Jewish watchmaker from Frankfurt, Nathan Ruben Frankel, who died in 1909. But no one knows what happened to the clock – which features a tiny figure of a navigator looking out to sea on the upper level – between Frankel’s death and its acquisition by Arthur Gilbert in Milwaukee in 1979.
Frankel’s descendants, Friedrich and Klara Frankel, had a thriving watch business in Frankfurt which they were forced to sell to the Nazis. The couple fled to France in 1938 and survived the war in hiding.
But it’s unclear whether they still owned the clock when the Nazis took over their business – or if they got it back after the war. It may be a mystery that will never be solved.
There is also a stunning pair of filigree doors that once adorned a monastery in Kiev. The doors, now on display in the galleries of the Gilbert V&A Collection, once belonged to S and J Goldschmidt, among the most famous Jewish art dealers in Frankfurt and Berlin.
After their business was seized by the Nazis in 1937, the doors were eventually sold to London. But again, there are big gaps in the ownership history of these priceless items.
It’s hard to judge Rosalinde and Arthur for not asking more questions about whether the items in their collection were the result of Nazi looting. Perhaps they were simply influenced by the fact that some of the items came from the collection of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. But where they were during the Holocaust may never be fully discovered.