Famous for its European and British masterpieces including gold and silver, enamel miniatures, gold boxes and mosaics, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection contains some of the most beautiful objects on display at the V&A. Stunning as they are, some of these objects conceal a troubling history.
This pioneering special display provides insight into the ongoing research into the provenance – or history of ownership – of the Gilbert Collection. In many cases it is unclear who owned these pieces before they were acquired by Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert. This uncertainty can be alarming: between 1933 and 1945 Jewish people in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe had their possessions systematically taken from them. Art collections were confiscated, sold, scattered or destroyed by the Nazis. Despite significant efforts after the Second World War by the Allies and European governments, many of these objects were never returned to their rightful owners. Instead, many objects ended up in public and private collections, often acquired without knowledge of their background, or whose hands they had passed through.
This display highlights how the Nazis systematically stripped Jewish art collectors and dealers of their collections and claimed some of the finest pieces for German museums. But at the same time, the Nazi regime 'cleansed' those museums of art that they viewed as subversive to the Nazi racial state. The V&A holds the only complete copy of the 1941/42 inventory of 'Entartete Kunst' ('degenerate art'), a digital copy of which is part of the display.
Today, the V&A and the Gilbert Collection are at the forefront of proactive provenance research in the UK. Following the appointment of a Provenance Curator, dedicated to the Gilbert Collection, this display – the first of its kind by a UK museum – uncovers eight stories of Jewish collectors and their families who lost everything under the Nazis.