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Tiepolo Restitution Claims?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo - The Banquet of Cleopatra - National Gallery of VictoriaSunday, 12 December 2010

Tiepolo Restitution Claims?

Whenever I see The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo at the National Gallery of Victoria, I am involuntarily reminded that it once belonged to the Russian tsars. It was purchased in 1756 by Empress Catherine the Great and remained by descent in the collection of the Russian Imperial family, the Romanovs, until the Revolution of 1917. After the revolution, all their properties and collections were confiscated and nationalised; parts of it sold off to support the fledging Soviet economy. Cleopatra was among the paintings earmarked for sale, and in 1932 it was secured for the National Gallery of Victoria.

Restitution claims from the descendants of the Russian Imperial Family, aristocracy, and merchant, banking, and industrial elites, whose properties (including art collections) were confiscated and nationalised after the 1917 Soviet Revolution, are a very recent phenomena, and to the best of my knowledge these claims have not been successful yet.

Paul Cezanne - Mme Cezanne 1891 - The MetropolitanThe Australian on Friday reprinted an article from The Wall Street Journal, where a descendant of the rich industrial Morozov family, whose famous collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art were also confiscated and nationalised by the Soviet Authorities after the Revolution. He claims for the restitution to Morozov’s heirs of a painting by Paul Cézanne at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (C. Herring and E. Orden, “Painting’s Troubled Past Revisited”, The Australian, 10 December 2010, Arts 15). The litigation continues.

Let me give you a brief history of expropriation and nationalisation of private property in Europe of the last century. In 1917, Communists swept to power in Russia after the October Revolution. In 1918, the Soviet Government nationalised all private property, which extended to works of art. Most of their former owners, which included the Russian Imperial Family, the aristocracy, and the merchant, banking, and industrial elites were either forced to flee the country or marched to the execution block.

Most artworks were sent to a central collecting point, and the most significant among them were placed with major museums in Moscow and St Petersburg. The rest were gradually distributed among regional museums and art centres throughout the Soviet Union, including its furthest outposts beyond the Ural Mountains. (Of course, inevitably, there was a bit of looting and destruction along the way, especially to the works of art in the former elite’s country estates.)

F.X. Winterhalter - Countess Maria Lamsdorff - Metropolitan (in the Lamsdorff Collection, St Petersburg, prior to 1918)In the 1920s and 1930s, the cash-strapped Soviet Government began to sell off some of its nationalised collections. Their former owners, a number of whom by now were penniless exiles, could do little but watch as their heirlooms, which were in family collections for hundreds of years, were sold off the auction block in European capitals and subsequently popped up in major museums around the world (among them a number of portraits by F.X.  Winterhalter).

In the 1930s, the Third Reich began its persecution of the Jewish population, whose collections were likewise expropriated; their former owners either escaped miraculously by the skin of their teeth, or sent to their death in concentration camps.

In the early 1940s, the Soviet army swept through Eastern Europe, setting up from 1945 onwards Communist regimes in the liberated countries along the Soviet borders. Once again, their former royal, aristocratic, and upper class families fled; their property was nationalised; their art collections were distributed among state and regional collections.

From the late 1940s, the Holocaust survivors and their descendants began restitution claims. Private collectors, public institutions, and whole governments are being sued to this day for the return of confiscated goods to their former owners or descendants.

Maria Altman in front of the restituted Klimt

With the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, members of the royal, aristocratic, and upper class families, who were chased out of their countries, began similar restitution claims, which, in many cases are successful.

To this we may perhaps add the continuous battle of the Greek government for the return of the Elgin marbles; and the energetic efforts of Dr Zahi Hawass for the return of Egyptian antiquities from museums around the world to Egypt.

However, the confiscation and nationalisation of private collections by the Soviet Authorities in 1918 seems to have remained out of bounds; and the restitution claims of Morozov’s heirs hitherto remained unsuccessful.

Fifty three members of the Romanov family were alive at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Eighteen of them were murdered between 1918 and 1919, including Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, and their five children. The heirs of surviving Romanovs are alive today. If the legal precedent is established by the Morozov claim, the legality of the ownership of the National Gallery of Victoria’s The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo may also be questioned.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

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