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.
Here we present three of these stories:
Previous owner: Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild (1843 – 1940)
Concealed history: In 1938, Goldschmidt-Rothschild was forced to sell his collection by the Nazis to Frankfurt's museums.
Pathway into the Gilbert Collection: Acquired in 1979 with no information about its provenance.
A successful banker who married into the Rothschild banking dynasty, Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild was one of the wealthiest individuals in the German Empire. In November 1938, the Nazi mayor of Frankfurt exploited the anti-Semitic violence engulfing the city and forced him to sell his entire art collection to Frankfurt's museums. After the war, the box was restituted to the family.
Previous owner: Eugen Gutmann (1840 – 1925)
Concealed history: The bulk of Gutmann's collection went to his son, Friedrich (1886 – 1944), who was murdered by the Nazis.
Pathway into the Gilbert Collection: Acquired in 1987 with no information about its provenance.
Eugen Gutmann founded the Dresdner Bank and built a collection of gold and silver treasures, catalogued in 1912 as including this box. After his death in 1925, the bulk of the collection went to his son Friedrich who lived with his wife Louise in the Netherlands. In 1943, Friedrich and Louise Gutmann were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto and they were murdered. Apart from the 1912 catalogue, there are no records of this snuffbox until it reappeared on the art market in 1983.
Previous owner: Nathan Ruben Fränkel (1848 – 1909)
Concealed history: Fränkel's collection was divided after his death following his wishes. Some objects went to family members, who were later persecuted by the Nazis.
Pathway into the Gilbert Collection: Acquired in 1979 from an 'anonymous American collector'.
Nathan Ruben Fränkel was a successful clockmaker from Frankfurt. Alongside his business, he built up an encyclopaedic collection of timepieces, which was dissolved when he died. After his death, the collection was dissolved. Some objects went to family members, many of whom were later persecuted by the Nazis. This clock only resurfaced in 1979 with no information about its provenance.