09 Apr 2020

On the occasion of the International Day of Provenance Research, Katharina Georgi-Schaub, research assistant in the provenance research team of the Kunstmuseum Basel, presents one of her cases: Gustave Courbet's painting "Le retour de la conférence" from 1863.

It is a strange scene that takes place in front of the amazed eyes of some peasants: devoid of all holy earnestness and anything but dignified, a group of visibly tipsy priests staggers along the country road, maltreating a struggling donkey. What today appears to be a cheerful-satirical genre scene caused a veritable scandal in Courbet's time. However, at this point I do not intend to enlarge on the way the public at that time dealt with this subject, which was perceived as an attack against the Catholic Church; nor is it intended to deal with the question, which has not yet been clarified, of whether the relatively large, but fleetingly painted oil sketch is a preliminary study for or an autograph (?) copy after the impressive scandalous painting that no longer exists. The focus today should rather be on the history of our Basel version in the years preceding its acquisition in February 1946.

The acquisition

I have examined Courbet's painting in the context of the ongoing project supported by the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (BAK). This project clarifies the ownership situation in the years 1933-1945 of works that came into the collection of the Kunstmuseum before 1962. Sources in the Kunstmuseum's archive provided information on the process of the acquisition. The correspondence between the director Georg Schmidt and the vendor Edith Gibian-Schayer is recorded there. The latter first contacted the Kunstmuseum from an address in Winterthur shortly before the end of 1945 and offered the painting for sale. As required by the rules for the sale of works of art issued by the Allies immediately after the end of World War II, Schmidt immediately enquired about the origin of the painting. He received the following information: Edith Gibian-Schayer was the sister-in-law of the owner, a Mrs Theda Stückgold-Kornelius, who had died in August of this year. The latter was a Swiss who had moved from Germany to Switzerland in 1943. She had officially imported the painting, which had been in her possession for many years. Mrs Gibian-Schayer acted as executor of the estate of the two sons of the deceased, who currently lived in Palestine – "completely destitute", she added.

Georg Schmidt is reassured: there is no danger whatsoever that the painting may fall under the looted property sought by the Allies, the owner apparently being a Swiss returning emigrant. And so it is easy to reach an agreement, especially since the price is right: Mrs Gibian-Schayer claims her sister-in-law paid 10,000 marks and is demanding 8,000 Swiss francs. Schmidt considers the price to be attractive and openly communicates this assessment to the offerer, whereupon the latter notes that she considers the offer to be a special price, since it is important to her to know that the painting goes to a museum. Everything is handled with the necessary effort for transparency and in best agreement between the seller and the Kunstmuseum. The museum's own archives therefore prove the legality of the purchase, and the provenance can be traced back to at least 1939.

Yet behind this acquisition process lie biographies that tell a different, previously unknown story, and this is what I wanted to explore. I was interested in the question of who the seller or her deceased sister-in-law was – all the more so because the fact that the sons of Theda Stückgold-Kornelius were apparently living in Palestine under financially difficult circumstances at the time of the sale indicated a Jewish family background. So I set out on a search for traces, which led me to the Federal Archives in Bern. In fact, there are several dossiers there which, together with further research on the internet, enabled me to reconstruct, at least partially, the biographies of the various family members.

The "story behind the painting"

The former owner, Theda Stückgold, née Kornelius (1890-13 August 1945), residing last in Zurich, was a Berlin Jewess. So she was not a Swiss returning emigrant, as Schmidt had concluded. She only acquired Swiss citizenship thanks to her second husband, the merchant Kurt David Stückgold, to whom she had been married since about 1938/39. He, too, had spent almost his entire life in Berlin.

In her first marriage Theda Stückgold had been wed to the German-Polish Jew Fritz Schayer. Fritz Schayer was co-owner of the Kiepenheuer publishing house, a bibliophile and art collector. The two sons Ott-Hermann and Konrad, mentioned in the purchase correspondence, who had emigrated to Palestine at the end of the 1930s, came from the marriage with Fritz Schayer. The mother of her first husband, Eleonore Schayer, had lived for some time with Theda and Kurt Stückgold. She committed suicide in June 1942 for fear of impending deportation to a concentration camp (the latter can be learned from a cobblestone set in her memory).

Theda and Kurt Stückgold were forced out of Germany by the Gestapo in August 1943. They emigrated to Zurich, where Kurt died on 26 January 1944. In Berlin-Charlottenburg they left behind an apartment with valuable art treasures, which, stored with a shipping company, were destroyed in an air raid. Until her death in 1945, Theda Stückgold had repeatedly tried to transfer assets left behind in Germany to Switzerland. To no avail, unfortunately. Nevertheless, she had been lucky in her misfortune, because the Swiss nationality of her second husband had enabled her to emigrate – and apparently at least to take along some of her possessions.

This made it much easier for her to gain a foothold in her new home than for the sister of her first husband, Edith Gibian-Schayer, who took over the sale of the Courbet. She had already emigrated to Nice with her husband Georg in 1939. There the childless couple had also received French citizenship. They had come to Switzerland at the end of May 1944 as illegal refugees. From then on, after temporary internment in a work camp, their lives took place in various refugee accommodation facilities. Such an address is also concealed behind the Winterthur residence from which Edith Gibian corresponded with Georg Schmidt. In the files of the Federal Archives, in addition to the documents of the Immigration Police, one can find applications for refugee assistance, because Edith Gibian – her husband died in 1945 – had no income whatsoever, and she was not granted a work permit as a teacher. In November 1946, i.e. at the end of the year in which the sale to the Kunstmuseum was completed, she received permission to emigrate to her brother in Brazil via Marseilles.

In her role as the vendor of the painting, Edith Gibian completely disregards her own fate. Even the nephews' financial plight is only hinted at in a side note. The tragedy of these families only became apparent in the course of the investigation. The result is a story which today, almost 75 years later, with its background of expulsion and flight, has a depressing relevance and should therefore be worth telling.

Written by: Katharina Georgi-Schaub, Research assistant, Provenance Research Kunstmuseum Basel