In the course of provenance research on the European painting collection, the museum discovered that a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Pensive Young Brunette (1963-181-18), was confiscated by the Nazis from the French collector Alphonse Kann. In 1945 the painting was found by the Allies in a salt mine in Austria, and in July 1946 it was returned to Kann. The World War II history of the painting highlights the systematic seizure of works of art by the Nazis and the activities of the Allies to return those works to their rightful owners, as well as the efforts of researchers today to understand fully and document these activities.
The Corot painting was sold in the posthumous sale of the artist on May 26–June 9, 1875, where it was purchased by Monsieur Legendre of Paris. It was subsequently in the collection of Alexis Rouart (1839–1911), a Parisian engineer whose collections were sold on his death in 1911. Prior to World War II, the Corot portrait formed part of the noted collection of Alphonse Kann (1870–1948). At his townhouse at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, Kann assembled important Impressionist and Modern masters as well as gothic tapestries, medieval objects, and pre-Columbian art.(1) Because his large collection was seized and meticulously catalogued by the Nazis, Kann’s name is among the “red-flag” names in provenance research. In the spring of 1940, as the Nazis approached Paris, Kann fled Paris for London. He was unable to remove or hide his collection of more than 1,202 objects, and it was confiscated in the autumn of 1940 by a Nazi task force called the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or “Special Task Force of the Reich Leader [Alfred] Rosenberg”) on the grounds that it was “abandoned property.”
The ERR was the dominant Nazi agency responsible for the seizure of works of art in occupied France. An efficient and well-planned organization, the ERR established a complex record-keeping and cataloguing system to document the removal and dispersal of artwork from Jewish collections. They used a series of letters and numbers to identify each seized object and its origin. Such ERR codes often included the initials of a collector and an inventory number unique to each object and corresponds to a card containing the artist, title, dimensions, and other relevant information for each object. In the case of Alphonse Kann’s collection, ERR cataloguers used the letters “Ka” to identify works from his collection. Between 1941–1942, the ERR catalogued Kann’s collection at the Jeu de Paume, a building in the Tuilleries Garden that was used before the war as a gallery for Impressionist and modern paintings. The Philadelphia Corot was presumably one of the earliest paintings catalogued by the ERR because the code “Ka 38” is painted on the stretcher (see detail of back), indicating that it was the 38th object (of an eventual 1,202) to be recorded from Alphonse Kann’s collection.
The ERR cards were seized by the Allies after the war and today are extremely useful to provenance researchers. Now housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, the ERR cards relating to Kann’s collection were consulted to discover that card “Ka 38” describes a Corot portrait of a woman with dimensions matching those of the Philadelphia painting.(2) It is not known where the painting was between 1942–1945, but in May 1945 it was recovered by the Allies along with a significant, though far from complete, portion of Kann’s collection. In Munich the Allies established a collecting point to assemble, catalogue, and return works of art that were discovered in warehouses and repositories throughout Europe to their countries of origin. Munich Central Collecting Point card no. 366/Aussee 292/2 documents the discovery of the Corot painting, described as a “portrait of a sitting lady” having the identifying mark “Ka 38,” in the salt mine at Alt Aussee.(3) Notes on the back of the card indicate that the painting arrived at the Munich Central Collecting Point on June 23, 1945, and was sent to Paris on May 23, 1946.
After working to determine their owners, the Munich Central Collecting Point sent paintings back to their countries of origin. The Corot (item no. 119) was included in a shipment of 594 items sent to Paris under the authority of Captain Hubert de Brye on May 23, 1946.(4) The shipment included works from the Kann collection as well as those of other French collectors. Upon the painting’s arrival in Paris, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged for its return to Kann. Recent correspondence with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that the painting was restituted to a representative of Kann in July 1947. Shortly thereafter it may have been placed with the André Weil Gallery in Paris by a representative of Kann or his family. On May 31, 1949, André Weil sold the Corot to the American collector Louis E. Stern of New York; Stern gave it to the museum in 1963.