Alain Monteagle

Mastering the Basics

Alain Monteagle, 71, is a retired history teacher, former city councilman living in Montreuil, France. ©Dmitry Kostyukov

Alain Monteagle: Becoming an Art Detective

Q & A By Doreen Carvajal

[Q] Since 2005 you have successfully recovered about a dozen paintings, most recently a landscape by John Constable that had been seized and sold in an auction of your great-great aunt’s art collection in 1943 in Nice, France. What were your first steps in researching your family’s history and the stories behind their artworks looted in WWll?

[A] The basic steps in every story are different I imagine. I started after I was contacted by some crooks who tried to extort the maximum amount of money to reclaim a work. The Musées de France alerted me that they were going to organize a restitution of two small paintings.  So I think that these crooks first heard about the restitution and tried to take advantage of me.

I knew my family’s story from my mother, who had a lot of affection for her great aunt Anna Jaffé and her paintings. All her collection had been looted during World War II by the Nazis. My mother thought that they would never be found again or that they would have been destroyed during bombing attacks in Berlin

But I knew it was a large collection. And so I went to the national archives in Paris to find the catalogue of the looted art. This took me quite a long time because it was a matter of a trial involving many people who had been accused of stealing and who had purchased works at an auction of the Jaffé collection. So, it took me one year or so to get to this catalogue. And then I found a list of paintings along with photographs, 30 of them in black and white in 1943. From that, I started searching other sales catalogues. That was the beginning.

[Q] Was that a eureka moment for you?

 [A] Yes of course because it came all together. Suddenly I really understood what was going on. I had been told about some documents by some crooked people. They had told me that they had the only copy in the world of this catalogue, which was not true at all. I really was of course thrilled. I read it and reread it again. (Catalogue is now on Calameo)

 [Q] Did you find any documents just by talking to people in your family?

 [A] My family had memories of the paintings. This was not from documents but was oral information. Some of my older cousins had seen the paintings and visited Anna Jaffé. They described several paintings that were not precisely mentioned in the catalogue or were very vaguely mentioned in the catalogue. I found letters from my grandfather to Anna Jaffé. But that wasn’t from my family, I found them myself at the Sorbonne library under the name of Gustave Cohen, my grandfather, who had given his books and papers to the library.

They were not all of his letters because his own Paris apartment had been looted completely, emptied of everything. But there were still some. You must look in every direction in order to find things. For me, it’s as important to find family history as it is to find information about looted art.

Family members also told me about the wills of John and Anna Jaffé.  I looked for those wills in Nice and in London. There were several wills with several dates. And in those wills, of course, the paintings were mentioned, not all of them, but some. In France, the notaries keep wills for many years. In London, there is a large office for wills. You must ask, and it takes some time. But I went to London and I found them there.

[Q] Where are the key places or archives to look for documents?

 There is the Archives de Paris. They are very helpful and very open minded. They gave me a lot of information for other places to visit. My advice is to go there. I looked at all the information on the internet, sites in Germany and the U.S. There is a national German list of paintings with doubtful provenance. I also looked at auction sales at the Drouot auction house during the war period. I have sent my list of photographs of missing works to Artloss Register. They have it at Sotheby’s and Christie’s and so they are supposed to watch for the works as they come to sale.

[Q] When starting out, do you need to hire a lawyer or a researcher?

[A] My advice is be careful of people who tell you that they will do everything: “I will do research, I will do the sale, I will offer expertise.” Because that’s not true. They cannot do everything, of course, even when they ask you for a lot of money. As for lawyers, yes, but only when you really need them. For instance, in Fort Worth, Texas, I only asked for lawyers after the Kimbell Museum agreed to the restitution of a Turner painting. Then I had lawyers check on the agreement and Texas law, which I knew absolutely nothing about. But I did not ask for lawyers beforehand. If a case lasts for years, a lawyer will cost you a lot of money. My family and my grandfather stopped their research in the late 50’s because they had hired a very expensive lawyer. And they had spent all their money on that and they could not go on. So be very careful with lawyers. I’m sorry if I am shocking you.

[Q] What is your basic advice for beginning researchers?

 [A] The problem is that these situations are all different. I would tell them to prepare to fight. I don’t know take vitamins. Get some energy. And you will find 20 crooks for one honest person. And when I say crooks, I mean 20 liars. So, if you feel discouraged go on and fight.

[Q] Did you have any background or training in art history?

[A] I studied a little art history, but mostly my mother had showed me paintings by her favorite painters who happened to be Anna Jaffé’s favorite painters. I think it’s interesting to look at museum catalogues in the libraries and to look at the provenance of art works as often as possible when it is mentioned.

[Q] Walk us through one example of your search for a particular artwork.

[A] It was the “Venice Grand Canal” by Francesco Guardi. At the time, I did not know there was an MNR catalogue, which lists the spoliated art held by French museums awaiting restitution to the rightful heirs. So, my approach was to look at the Guardi catalogue raisonnée, which had a painting that matched one in our catalogue. I saw it was an MNR in Toulouse. Where did I find the catalog raisonnée? I went to the national library for art history. It’s in the Bibliothèque Richelieu, the part specialized in art history.

[Q] Are most people capable of gathering information to track and reclaim a work of looted art?

[A] The problem is that many people in this situation are even much older than me. And this situation for them is not easy. And I am not young. But if they can find someone in their family — a younger person with motivation — I advise this really. Or enlist students. Or people with no financial interest, because it’s a subject that some people imagine is like treasure hunting.

[Q] Did you have to conduct genealogy research yourself to find the heirs in your family?

[A] I went to a genealogist in Paris recognized by the French state and he found a line of cousins with some people as far away as Uruguay. He found everybody. Everything is complete. I was pleased because when we were looking for the Turner painting in Texas, there were many Jaffés in the United States. There were lots of letters that said yes, yes, we are Jaffés. And with the work of the genealogist, we could show who were the real descendants of the heirs mentioned in the will.

[Q] Are you still searching for artwork?

I would say about sixty. It’s more difficult now. When they are very famous paintings in famous museums, it’s a lot easier. Many of them are probably in private ownership. We’re looking for a Rembrandt that may not be a Rembrandt.

 [Q] Why do you pursue this research?

I do it for my family and for the memory of my relatives. I gladly accepted to do this work for my family, whose ancestors were deported. Anna Jaffé wanted to leave them the paintings, but it never happened*. It certainly caused the ruin of a few people, including my grandfather. Therefore, I want to do justice for them. Memory is very important because the Nazis wanted to destroy the Jewish people and its culture. And I want to fight this notion.

*At Anna Jaffé’s death, her collection was confiscated by the Commissariat des Questions Juives” (the Commission for Jewish Affairs) and auctioned by the Vichy government in Nice in July 1943.