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Books: A Kleptocrat’s Collection

By: Lynn H. Nicholas

Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection

By Nancy H. Yeide, Introduction by Robert M. Edsel
Laurel Publishing, $250

The great complexities of provenance research are little known to those outside the profession. Claimants of looted art, lawyers, judges and most journalists, unaware of the difficulties, often think that the exact history of a work of art is easily found. In her extraordinary book on the paintings collection of Hermann Goering, Nancy H. Yeide, chief of provenance research at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., makes clear that that is not the case. She writes that she hopes her work will provide a basis to challenge the belief that we already know everything about the Goering collection and that it will provide a foundation for ongoing research. On both counts she succeeds magnificently, and the foundation she provides is certainly formidable.

With its wealth of images and its very readable text, this book will appeal to the layman and be of tremendous use to professionals. Goering’s collection, second only to that of his boss, Adolf Hitler, was bought or confiscated from individuals and museums in every corner of Germany and the lands it controlled and displayed with enormous ostentation in the Reichsmarschall’s residences.

Using photographs gathered from an enormous array of worldwide sources both public and private, Yeide lays out Goering’s vast assemblage of paintings more or less in the order of acquisition. The visual impact is tremendous and reveals, more than any words can, the Reichsmarschall’s peculiar taste in painting, which ran heavily to the unclothed female form. It also makes clear just how much he was misled by a whole phalanx of curators and dealers, whose machinations are succinctly described in Yeide’s introductory essay. The essay, written with nice touches of irony, provides excellent context and much colorful and little-known detail, such as the fact that Goering’s godfather (his mother’s probable lover) was an Austrian Jew from whom Goering would inherit two of the houses he would eventually fill with ill-gotten art.

But the real meat of the book is the catalogue. Yeide provides extremely useful information on archival sources for ongoing research and in a few paragraphs makes clear the complexities of the Goering documentation. The catalogue is divided into a number of sections: the main one for items known to have actually been in Goering’s possession, two more for those likely or uncertain to have been in the collection and a separate section on items used in exchanges. Because of the complexity of Goering’s art operations and the vast numbers of items involved, Yeide clearly had to make some decisions about what to include. For example, she does not include works from the expropriated stock of the Dutch Jewish dealer Jacques
Goudstikker—that were technically owned for a short time by Goering but not selected for his collections, while she does include some “degenerate” (Nazi terminology for modernist) works that were used in exchanges or immediately sold, because of their relation to other works in the collection.

The emphasis of the entries is on provenance rather than on the scholarly aspects of attribution. Alternative attributions are from the archival documentation of the Goering collection and not from art historical literature, the object being to identify the works and their history in the Nazi era rather than to determine attribution. This is as it should be in such a book. The entries are complex and not entirely user-friendly for the uninitiated, but Yeide provides a clear explanation of her methodology in the notes. Where there are gaps, which are particularly frustrating when it comes to present-day location, Yeide invites readers who might have such information to share it with her, perhaps for a future edition. Indeed, a digitized edition with spaces left for addenda would be a good thing.

This book, with its enormous wealth of detail, is an essential tool for art world professionals and should be required reading for anyone who deals with the issues of art looting and restitution. Beautifully produced and full of excellent images, it is a pleasure for anyone to read and handle.

Author: admin | Publish Date: October 2009

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