So, I just spoke with Robert Edsel concerning those two paintings at the SMU Meadows Museum his Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art publicly identified as having been stolen from the the Rothschild family in Paris in 1941 by the Nazis. He did not have much time to talk -- Edsel is, at this very moment, in Washington, D.C., attending a conference dealing with the restitution of the rightful owners of looted artwork, matter of fact. But he says he finds Meadows Museum director Mark Roglán's statement concerning the revelation -- which reads, in part, "neither Mr. Edsel nor his associates has ever presented SMU with any evidence that would question whether the paintings were properly restituted" -- both "bewildering" and "bothersome."
Why? Because, Edsel says, two and a half years ago, he first contacted Meadows and SMU officials about the likelihood that Bartolome Esteban Murillo's portraits of Seville's patron saints Justa and Rufina had been stolen by the Nazis. He says he asked to come over to view the pieces to check the backs for the official Nazi code indicating that they'd once belonged to the Rothschilds. At first, Edsel says, officials would only allow access to photos. "They said they did not believe their provenence was wrong," Edsel says. "And they send pictures, which wasn't what we wanted to see."
In April 2007, Edsel says, he and his investigators -- including Patricia Teter of the Getty Research Institute -- were allowed access to the painting themselves. At which point, they found what they were looking for.
"We got on our hands and knees, and we didn't see anything on the first painting we examined, Saint Rufina," Edsel says. "But on the second, there was the Nazi inventory code, and I said to [museum officials], 'What do you think that is?' We were surprised to see it because they often aren't there. Then again, I wasn't surprised, because we believed it to be there. So we went back and re-examined the first painting, and once we enhanced it we could see a shadow of the code."
That was in the spring of 2007. But Edsel says the Meadows only this week updated its provenance information for both paintings, which now include the following: "Confiscated by the Nazi ERR in Paris from Rothschild Collection." Edsel says he posted the press release yesterday to acknowledge the change in provenance. But he still has issues with the university's position. As in: Why did it take two and a half years to acknowledge their history, and why do both entries say the paintings were "likely restituted to Rothschild family (after 1946)"? Why, he wonders, can't the university offer definititve proof concerning restitution?
"Why it has taken the Meadows two and a half years to provide online the inrformation we provided them then is a quesiton you'll have to ask them," he says. (And we have tried -- but Roglán is traveling and unavailable for comment.) "And his statement on this is bewildering. When you prove something is stolen, the onus shifts to them as the owners to prove they were proporerly restitued. We know they were stolen because they've updated their site. I don't know what they've done to determine the situation, but we've done all we can do, and those aren't even our paintings.
"My suspicion is that they probably were restituted. But that's my speculation. What we don't want to do is deal with what-ifs. We want to deal with documents, and we haven't been able to find any documents to show that those paintings were returned to France or the Rothschilds. When you say 'likely,' that's pretty tacit acknowledgement that they don't know. And till we can see proof, those pictures are stolen."