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  • Caroline Cassin

Today, I interview Dr Jacques Schuhmacher, Provenance and Spoliation Curator at the V&A, London.

Dr Jacques Schuhmacher is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Provenance and Spoliation Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum.


“As children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert were acutely aware of Nazi crimes.”


“When the V&A opens again to the public in May 2021, visitors will again be able to visit Concealed Histories”.


Can you explain what is the The Gilbert Collection for our readers?

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection contains some of the most beautiful objects on display at the V&A. The Collection is famous for its European and British masterpieces. It features dazzling items of gold and silver, intimate portrait miniatures, magnificent gold boxes – and, my absolute favourite, micro mosaics which, at first glance, look like as if they were painted with a brush. Only if you look closer do you begin to realise that these incredibly detailed pictures actually consist of thousands of small individual pieces. We owe this incredible collection to Arthur Gilbert and his wife Rosalinde. She was a fashion designer while Arthur ran the business side of their affairs. He would later became a real estate developer in Los Angeles, which created the wealth that enabled them to build what would become one of the world’s most important collections of works of decorative art.



Can you explain the history of one particular object?

My own research is focused on the provenance of the collection with respect to the Nazi period (1933-45). This research is necessary because, after the war, many items which the Nazis had confiscated or extorted from their Jewish victims were not recovered and restituted but instead continued to circulate on the art market. As children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert were acutely aware of Nazi crimes. But, like so many other collectors of the time, they did not ask in-depth questions about the provenance of the masterpieces they added to their collections. It was only towards the end of Arthur Gilbert’s career as a collector that this began to change due to the Washington Conference in 1998, which placed Nazi-era provenance on the agenda for museums and collectors alike.


A striking example of the importance of this research is an antique table clock. It had previously been in the collection of Nathan Ruben Fränkel, a successful Jewish clockmaker from Frankfurt am Main. We do not know what happened to this clock after his death in 1909 and in the years before it resurfaced on the art market in 1979. This uncertainty is naturally rather alarming because of the extent of the persecution experienced by the Fränkel family. Friedrich and Klara Fränkel, who ran a thriving watch business in Frankfurt, were forced into bankruptcy by the Nazis, for the sole reason that they were Jewish. In 1938, they fled to France where they narrowly escaped deportation and survived the war in hiding. In spite of extensive research in archives around Europe, we still do not have clarity about the provenance of the clock during this dark period. This is why my colleague Alice Minter and I decided to put it on show as part of the special provenance display ‘Concealed Histories: Uncovering the Story of Nazi looting’ in the V&A’s Gilbert Galleries. We not only wanted to give our visitors the opportunity to learn about the history of the Fränkel family – we also hope that this will enable us to solve the continuing mystery at the heart of this stunning object’s provenance.


Is the exhibition opened, can we see it online?

When ‘Concealed Histories’ opened to the public, it attracted a lot of attention because it was the first display of its kind by a UK national museum. We counted 4,000 visitors who specifically came to the Gilbert Galleries to see the display each month before the pandemic forced us to close the doors of the museum. When the V&A opens again to the public in May 2021, visitors will again be able to visit Concealed Histories. As we wait for that moment, visitors can go to the V&A’s website to learn about the stories of eight Jewish collectors under the Nazis and to explore the only known complete copy of the inventory of so-called ‘degenerate’ art confiscated by the Nazis.


What is the Research methods of the V&A in term of provenance? How do you proceed?

My research always starts with the V&A’s own records. These always tell us from whom Arthur and Rosalinde acquired the objects but further information about their provenance is usually not available. From there, I try to work my way backwards in time until I have clarity about who owned the object before and during the Nazi period. At the same time, I try to find out if the object left traces in the scholarly literature or the catalogues published by auction houses or proud collectors, which is how we found out that the clock was in the collection of Nathan Ruben Fränkel. Naturally, another important source is of course the records created by the Nazi regime.


During the Second World War and its aftermath, V&A curators were actively involved in the recovery and restitution of Nazi-looted art.

Indeed, John F. Hayward was a member of a unit known as the ‘Monuments Men’, established by the Allies to protect and rescue artworks seized by the Nazis. Before he became the V&A’s silver specialist in 1946, John Hayward was responsible for coordinating the return of Jewish libraries confiscated by the Nazis for the Hohe Schule, their centre for ideological research and education. His V&A colleague Donald King, who was the Keeper of the Textiles Department, had been responsible for the restitution of items of metalwork, such as church bells and bronze monuments, which the Nazis had looted all over Europe to use them for making ammunition. He also interrogated German curators and art historians who had been involved in this enormous art heist.


Has the V&A already restituted a piece of Art?

Yes, in 1984 the V&A acquired a Meissen piece from an English woman living in Rome who had bought it from a dealer in Paris. What the curator at the time did not know was that the piece had been part of the 1937 forced sale of the Emma Budge collection in Nazi Germany. After the V&A published all of its collections online in 2009, a lawyer representing the heirs of Emma Budge alerted the museum to this problematic provenance. The V&A’s Ceramics curator found two additional Meissen pieces which been part of the same auction. The case was referred to the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel and in 2012 all three Meissen pieces were restituted.


Is there any object/ painting in the V&A with a commentary such as “unknown” or with the history of the spoliation of the object?

It can be surprising to realise how little museums – even the V&A – often know about the provenance of the items in their collections. To understand this, we need to look at how provenance was recorded. From the foundation of the V&A in 1857, curators always recorded from whom they had acquired an object. If the curator learned that the object had previously been in the hands of someone famous or influential, then they recorded this information which was essentially seen as a ‘stamp of approval’. But gaps in the provenance were not seen as a cause for concern. It was only in 1998 with the Washington Conference that it began to dawn on museums that this practice meant that they could have unwittingly acquired objects which the Nazis had confiscated or extorted from their Jewish victims. But in the period between 1933 and 1998, the V&A acquired hundreds of thousands of objects, many of which have significant gaps in their provenance. This is why it is so important to conduct this research into the V&A’s collections. It is really reassuring to work for a museum that is so open and transparent about what it knows and does not yet know about the objects in its collection. It is fantastic that the museum also made possible the ‘Concealed Histories’ display which draws visitors’ attention to the gaps in objects’ provenance.


Nathan Ruben Fraenkel


Museums and diligence, how do you think museums could do better?

A lot has happened since the Washington Conference. Today, it would be unthinkable for a museum like the V&A to acquire or borrow an object without asking questions about its provenance during the Nazi period. The problem is not so much that museums do not ask the right questions but that the answers are often not readily available. Donors and dealers often find themselves in the same situation. They often have little information about the provenance of the items in their keeping. The fundamental problem here is that the art market moves very fast and that provenance research can take a long time. Due diligence for incoming exhibition loans is equally challenging. A museum like the V&A might borrow hundreds of objects from dozens of institutions from all over the world. We have put in place a robust due diligence procedure for acquisitions and loans and check every single object. You asked how museums could do better. I know that a lot of museums would like to do more in the area of provenance research. The limiting factor is not the motivation but the funding that is necessary to do this properly, especially now in the difficult financial situation in which museums find themselves after the pandemic.


2 or 3 events and or books that you will recommend to our Art Law lovers?

This is a difficult question because there are so many excellent books on this topic, starting with the ‘classics’: Lynn H. Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War and Jonathan Petropolous’ The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, which paved the way for the field in the 1990s. For anyone interested in how museums have dealt with the legacy of Nazi looting since then, I cannot recommend highly enough Ruth Redmond-Cooper’s Museums and the Holocaust. Second Edition, which was published early this year. For those interested in provenance beyond Nazi looted art, I would recommend Jane Milosch and Nick Pearce’s fascinating book Collecting and Provenance.



John Hayward - Member of the Monuments Men and VA Curator


Dr Jacques Schuhmacher is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Provenance and Spoliation Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum.


Many thanks Dr Jacques Schuhmacher!


Caroline Cassin


Plan a visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/gilbert-collection

"Meant ‘for everyone’, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection comprises gold and silver, enamel miniatures, gold boxes and mosaics. Sir Arthur Gilbert (1913 – 2001, knighted in 2001) donated the collection to Great Britain in 1996, stating that he and his first wife Rosalinde (1913 – 95) collected because they liked ‘beautiful things’."


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