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Los Angeles Museum to Return Late Medieval Persian Canopy, Looted from Poland During WWII



10 March 2002


A late medieval Persian canopy that was looted from a Polish collection by the Nazis and has spent most of the last three decades in storage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is being returned to Poland.

In a ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the museum, LACMA President and Director Andrea Rich announced that the artwork will be sent back to Poland after a yearlong inquiry that determined it had been illegally seized during World War II.

"Today, LACMA sends this textile to its rightful owners, not only because it is our professional responsibility, but also because it is morally and ethically the right thing to do," Rich said. The 7-foot by 9-foot woven canopy,

which depicts a prince surrounded by angels, birds and animals, is the first work in LACMA's collection to be identified as Nazi loot and the first to be returned by the museum to a pre-World War II owner. It will be transferred to the Princes Czartoryski Foundation Museum, part of the National Museum in Krakow.

One of 25,000 pieces in LACMA's collection of textiles and clothing, it is a rare example of a blend of Indian and Iranian influences. Dated to the 15th century or early 16th century, it had been damaged and extensively mended when the museum bought it for a few thousand dollars in 1971. It has been displayed at LACMA only twice, soon after it was acquired and again in the early 1980s. Its current value is unknown.

"It's a study piece, but we'll miss it," said Linda Komaroff, the museum's curator of Islamic art.

LACMA purchased the canopy in 1971 from Los Angeles textile dealer Kay Robertson, whose father, Munich dealer Lowey Robertson, bought it at an auction in 1970. Neither Robertson nor the museum suspected that the work was Nazi loot at the time, LACMA officials say.

But in January 2001, London dealer Andrew S. Ciechanowiecki, who serves on the board of trustees of the Czartoryski Foundation, asked his longtime friend, J. Patrice Marandel, who is LACMA's chief curator of European painting and sculpture, if the museum might have the missing canopy in its collection.

Marandel forwarded the inquiry to the museum's costume and textiles department. When the curators found that LACMA had a piece that seemed to match the description, the Polish consul in Los Angeles was notified.

When Poland made a formal claim in October 2001, the matter was turned over to art historian Amy Walsh, who heads LACMA's Provenance Research Project, set up in 1999 to search the museum's records for artworks that might have been looted during World War II.

Walsh first searched the museum's archives on the canopy and then went to the National Archives in College Park, Md., which maintains records of artworks that were seized during the Holocaust and later returned. She also contacted the National Museum in Krakow to study its records on the textile.

Her research convinced LACMA that its canopy was indeed the missing artwork. On Feb. 6, the board of trustees voted to return the piece to Poland.

The return of the canopy is part of an international museum effort to make restitution to victims of the Nazis. Art scholars are doing detective work for organizations ranging from an Internet registry based in Mageburg, Germany, to the Art Loss Registry in London and individual museums all across the United States.

As a result of these efforts, many looted works have been returned. Berlin's National Museum gave a Vincent van Gogh drawing worth more than $6 million to the family of a Jewish collector who was forced to sell it in 1935 for the equivalent of $600.

LACMA launched the Provenance Research Project nearly three years ago, hiring Walsh to examine its collection in accordance with national guidelines adopted by the American Assn. of Museums. She began with paintings, focusing on works that had been created before 1945 and that had changed hands between 1933 and the years shortly after World War II.

Walsh looked for gaps in the provenance, or history of ownership. It isn't unusual for records of ownership to be incomplete; artworks that change hands don't always leave a paper trail. But gaps that occur between 1933 and 1945 are of particular concern because they raise the possibility of Nazi involvement. Walsh found five paintings that raised questions of ownership during the period under scrutiny and posted them on the museum's Web site in November 2000.

The museum has received no claims for any of the paintings, she said. During the last year and a half, Walsh has combed through other parts of the collection and conducted research on artworks loaned to the museum to protect the institution from judicial procedures resulting from ownership claims.

But the return of LACMA's canopy is a special case, sparked by an outsider's inquiry.

Records in Poland trace the canopy's convoluted history through 1944. It was part of the collection of the late Princess Maria Ludwika Czartoryska, who installed it at her family's museum in Krakow in 1931. She moved most of her collection to a palace outside Krakow once the Nazis invaded Poland, but they soon discovered her hiding place and transported the works to their depot at the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow.

Most of the works, including the canopy, were returned to the family museum in the summer of 1940; the princess subsequently hid them in her palace in Warsaw. In December 1941, the Germans raided that palace, discovered 17 crates of artworks and sent them to the National Museum in Warsaw, then under Nazi control.

They remained there until 1944, when the Nazis moved them to an unknown location in Germany.

After the war, the Allied forces rounded up objects that the Nazis had seized and returned them to their owners. Most of the Czartoryski collection was returned, but the textile had disappeared.

It resurfaced in 1970, when it was sold at auction in London by the foundation of Hagop Kevorkian, a noted archeologist, dealer and collector. The auction catalog contains no information on the piece's provenance, and no record of Kevorkian's acquisition of the textile have been found.

The Polish consul general in Los Angeles, Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, accepted the artwork from LACMA on Wednesday, saying it will be proudly displayed and that its recovery will help to assuage losses of his country's cultural heritage.

"I never expected that one day, far from home in the beautiful landscape of California, I would be given a chance to make things better [at home]," he said.


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