top of page
  • Caroline Cassin

Concealed Histories: Uncovering the Story of Nazi Looting at the V&A.

Concealed Histories: Uncovering the Story of Nazi Looting, a free display, curated by Jacques Schuhmacher and Alice Minter, Curators of the Gilbert Collection, will open at the V&A on 5 December 2019.

Enamel miniature on copper, in a two-coloured gold frame, England, 1791, by Carl Ralph Huerter (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

On display will be a selection of items from the Gilbert Collection, one of the most important collections of decorative arts in the world. Comprising about 1,000 items of gold and silver, gold boxes, pietre dure, portrait miniatures and micro mosaics, some conceal a troubling history.

As children of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, the founders of the collection – Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert – were aware of Nazi crimes. But like many other collectors at the time, they did not ask questions about provenance whilst building their collection.

The display explains what Jacques’ research has revealed so far, as the UK’s first museum curator dedicated to provenance research – and what remains unknown about the history of these treasures.

Enamel miniature on gold, made in Paris by Paul Prieur, c. 1645-50 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Between 1933 and 1945, Jewish art collectors in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe had their possessions systematically taken from them. Collections were scattered, sold, confiscated or destroyed. Despite significant efforts after the Second World War by the Allies and European governments, many of these objects were never returned to the victims of the Nazis. They ended up in public and private collections, often acquired without knowledge of what had happened to them, or whose hands they passed through.

When the Gilberts acquired their masterpieces, the art market was booming, turnover was high, and sellers usually only provided information about illustrious royal or aristocratic provenance, which would dramatically increase value. Gaps in the history of ownership were common.

Methods of establishing the provenance of an object include:

  • Alternative sources such as catalogues commissioned by the original collectors or auction records where the auctioneer might have scribbled the name of the buyer into the margins.

  • Examining documents by the perpetrators of these crimes – for example, inventories of Jewish collections typed up by Nazi officials.

Case study:

Snuffbox, made in Dresden, c.1780 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Previous owner: Eugen Gutmann (1840–1925), founder of the Dresdner Bank.

Collection history: The bulk of Gutmann’s collection went to his son, Friedrich, who was murdered by the Nazis.

Way into the Gilbert Collection: Acquired in 1983 with no information about its provenance.

Eugen Gutmann was born into a Jewish family and converted to Protestantism. He founded the Dresdner Bank and built a collection of gold and silver treasures. The 1912 catalogue of this collection included this box. After Eugen Gutmann’s death in 1925, the bulk of the collection went to his son, Friedrich. In 1942, Nazi art dealers descended on the Gutmanns’ home and compelled Friedrich to send the collection to Munich. This snuffbox is not recorded on that inventory. We do not know when and under what circumstances the box left the Gutmann Collection. In 1943, Friedrich and his wife Louise were told they could immigrate to Italy. Instead, their train was diverted to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, and they were murdered.

The V&A’s wider work: Through exhibitions, conservation work, provenance research, talks, and events, the V&A is committed to exploring our own history and collections with rigour and transparency - and to building platforms for partnership and collaboration around the world. As discussed, further information on Maqdala 1868, curated by Alexandra Jones here:

Not to miss!

Thanks to Shannon!

Caroline Cassin

45 views0 comments


bottom of page