25 avr. 2020

Three previous blogposts for the International Day of Provenance Research on April 8th have documented the work of the provenance department at the Kunstmuseum. The following story behind a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) gives insight into the tragedies that are sometimes hidden behind the mere appearance of an artwork. Further, it shows how politicians can adopt a morally ambiguous stance, beyond the time of National Socialism.

Jacques Lipchitz, who was especially well-known in the USA, created this sculpture of a guitar player in 1922 in artificial stone. The first known owner of the object was the French art collector Paul Guillaume (1891-1934). Guillaume, who represented Lipchitz early in his career, had become a wealthy art dealer owing to his good intuition for contemporary art, despite his modest origins.

Interior shots of Guillaume’s Paris apartment, which are preserved at the Musée de l’Orangerie prove that the sculpture was in his possession until his early death in 1934. When tracing the trajectories of artworks, the focus subsequently lies on the heirs, in this case Guillaume’s ambitious wife Juliette Lacaze (1898-1977), called Domenica. At this point, the obscure drama around the Guillaume collection starts to unfold. It ends in the so-called “Affair Lacaze” and the (under value) sale of the collection to the French State by Domenica, allegedly in exchange for the suspension of investigations into attempted murder and defamation.

Domenica, an attractive, manipulative and showy woman, inherited the artworks that Guillaume had actually wanted to donate to the French Collections; however, Guillaume had failed to include this clause in his will. Shortly after his death, Domenica feigned a pregnancy, “obtained” an infant, Jean-Pierre, and adopted him after the scandal of her fake motherhood became public years later. Devoid of motherly feelings, her reasons for procuring a son are not entirely clear, however, speculations regarding inheritance laws and Guillaume’s actual fatherhood of the child were voiced. In the following years, she sold more than 200 of the progressive artworks from the collection, among them all of the African objects for which Guillaume was famed. Instead, she acquired more classical works, like early paintings by Paul Cézanne und Henri Matisse, thus changing the collection fundamentally. Domenica remarried, this time to the wealthy architect Jean Walter (1883-1957), with whom she had already entertained a ménage à trois during Guillaume’s lifetime. Walter, as well as Guillaume previously, died under slightly suspicious circumstances in 1957.

Domenica’s affairs had continued in her marriage to Walter, much to the latter’s frustration, with the doctor Maurice Lacour. At this point, the adopted son Jean-Pierre, in Domenica’s unforgiving opinion an utter failure, was standing in the way of her and Lacour’s inheritance. So much so that, according to Jean-Pierre and the person who was supposedly hired as a hit man, the couple plotted his death. Despite this testimony, investigations were suspended due to a lack of evidence. Shortly afterwards, Lacour, together with Domenica’s brother and possibly acting on her behalf, tried to accuse Jean-Pierre of procuration in order to nullify the adoption and his inheritance. However, the conspiracy was uncovered. Finally prompted to action, the French justice system imprisoned Lacour and Domenica’s brother. Domenica herself was never accused in court, probably owing to her good connections to leading political figures and the lack of evidence. If she really was the mastermind behind the stratagems against Jean-Pierre remains unclear up to this day.

It is certain though that in 1957 Domenica had already started negotiating with André Malraux (1901-1976), minister of cultural affairs, in 1957 regarding the collection– even before the alleged contract killing. In 1959 she sold the collection to the French State for a symbolic low price. Allegations she did this in exchange for immunity were widely discussed in the French press but the timeline of events make this unlikely. To this day, little in this story is completely clear, which contributes to the mystery surrounding the collection and associated artworks. After Domenica’s death, 146 first class artworks entered the French State collections, which are currently exhibited in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Returning to the provenance of the Lipchitz’ sculpture at the Kunstmuseum, we can assume from the above information that it was part of the group of artworks that were sold early on by Domenica from the collection of her first husband. In fact, an exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1937 suggests that she returned the sculpture to Lipchitz, as he is mentioned as the owner of an object with matching description. Since dimensions and a reproduction are missing though, a small doubt remains. The artwork’s trail gets cold until it resurfaced in 1953 in Geneva in the possession of an unidentified seller called Joseph Jonas. The Basel art patron Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach (1902-1994) acquired the work in 1954 from Jonas for the Kunstmuseum.

Although current provenance research investigations revolve – rightly – mostly around objects that were disappropriated in the context of the National Socialist Regime, the story of this artwork and associated fates show that research into the background of works of art is more generally worthwhile. According to the present research results, the artwork’s history does not bear a suspicion of being Nazi looted art. Rather, it exemplifies that the value of art (emotional, artistic, economical, prestige etc.) can lead to morally ambiguous barter and criminal endeavours even within families. The provenance gap of the sculpture between 1934 and 1953 remains for now, research into the art market, artists and new archival material might still change that.

The French State Museums have dealt with that part of their history in a short documentary from 2009.

Written by: Vanessa von Kolpinski, Research assistant, Provenance Research Kunstmuseum Basel