03 January 2012

"The Red Horses" by Franz Marc

The saga continues pertaining to the so-called “degenerate” works of art de-accessioned from German State collections. Unless otherwise stated, the subject preoccupies us until there is a resolution reached on the status of works and objects of art illegally de-accessioned, sold and bartered during the Third Reich.

On June 30, 1939, an auction—now infamous—of “works from German Museums” took place at the Theodor Fischer Gallery in Lucerne/Luzern, Switzerland. The auction was well-attended. The bidders and curious onlookers who wished to attend this one-of-a-kind sale of the cream of the “degenerate” cultural crop constituted an odd mix of National Socialist officials, as well as industrialists, financiers, brokers, middlemen, agents, gallery owners and dealers, and museum officials from the United States and Europe.

We chose at random one painting, “Grazing Horses IV,” also known as “The Red Horses,” painted by Franz Marc in 1911, to serve as an example of the fate of these choice items illegally culled from the cultural temples of Germany. A closer examination of its history helps us in our understanding of how historical information is conveyed about these and similar works which carry forever a genuinely controversial pedigree.

"Grazing Horses IV" aka. "The Red Horses", Franz Marc, 1911
Source: Wikipaintings
This exceptionally vibrant and dreamy painting had once been the pride and joy of the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, from which it was de-accessioned together with hundreds of other works in 1937. It is presently on long-term loan to Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, MA. Previously, it had been featured in a landmark exhibit of Franz Marc’s “Horses” in the fall of 2000 at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which is also part of Harvard University.

The current owner of the painting is Gabriele Brougier Esselborn Geier. She was born Gabriele Brougier on April 2, 1918, in Vienna, Austria. In 1939, she married Wilhelm zu Solms-Roedelheim und Assenheim, a local psychoanalyst who turned out to be the bearer of an impressive aristocratic pedigree linking him to Prussian nobility and the House of Hessen. He was also politically hostile to the National Socialists and became active in the Austrian political resistance to Hitler throughout the Second World War. The pair divorced in 1947.

We still do not know whether Gabriele is the one who took an interest in the Luzern sale or if her husband did. Judging by postwar information on the ownership of the Red Horses, we surmise that Gabriele, rather than Wilhelm, was the instigator of the purchase of the Marc painting as well as of another work, Portrait of the Duchess of Montesquiou, by Oskar Kokoschka, which had also been offered up for sale at the Fischer Gallery as a reject from German State collections.

August Busch Hall (Busch-Reisinger Museum) at Harvard University
Source: Wikipedia
In 1949, Gabriele married Paul Esselborn Geier, referred to as Paul E. Geier. There is a strong possibility that the two met in Vienna. Geier, born on November 19, 1914 hailed from Cincinnati, Ohio, where his father, Frederick Geier, Sr., was an important local manufacturer of machine parts. His father divorced his mother, Juliet Esselborn, to marry another woman, Amanda Mayer. Paul E. Geier studied at Harvard University from which he graduated in 1936. There, he wrote a pamphlet entitled “Studies of Modern German Antisemitism” which Harvard published in 1936. From there, he went to Harvard Law School from which he graduated in 1939. Geier returned to Cincinnati where he joined his father’s company. On February 9, 1940, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar. Later on, he represented the British Purchasing Commission before joining the Foreign Service. His duties as an American diplomat took him to Tangiers in March 1941, Jidda in November 1943 before becoming part of the staff of the US Political Advisor (USPOLAD) on Austrian Affairs, in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MEDTO) in 1945. Those duties took him to Vienna where he served as vice consul in 1946 and as consul in 1947. Geier then was transferred to Casablanca in mid-1948 before joining the US Embassy in Rome in 1949 where he served until 1953. At some point, Geier became very close to the art historian Bernard Berenson whom he regularly visited at his estate, Villa I Tatti, which Berenson had acquired in 1905. I Tatti later became part of the Harvard University Empire as a leading international center for research and scholarship in art history.

The Geiers made their home in Rome, although Gabriele also maintained a presence in her native Vienna. Thereafter, they moved back to Cincinnati in the mid-1950s where Paul and Gabriele became major philanthropic figures in the arts and higher education.

The Geiers loaned “The Red Horses” alternately to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) and the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, MA, in a shared arrangement. In 1996 Gabriele Geier received an unsolicited pledge reminder card from the CAM which took her over the edge, having just written a fat check to the Cincinnati Museum. Piqued, she withdrew the painting from CAM, stopped all future donations to CAM and established the Busch-Reisinger as the only worthy recipient of the painting and her cultural largesse. “The Red Horses” have since moved to the Fogg Art Museum.

Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University
Source: Wikipedia
Paul E. Geier died on October 23, 1981. A library wing of Villa I Tatti was created to honor his memory. Gabriele Geier moved back to Rome where she has been living ever since. In a stinging rebuke to the Cincinnati Art Museum, she hinted that she had other works at her house in Rome which she would donate to the Fogg.

The extant literature on “The Red Horses” is a bit mixed up about who bought the painting in Lucerne. Never do we see the name of Fritz Steinmeyer, who was Julius Bohler’s former art gallery partner before striking out on his own. It is Steinmeyer who allegedly acquires the painting. This attribution is correctly mentioned by German art historian Uwe Fleckner in his opus “Angriff auf die Avantgarde: Kunst und Kunstpolitik im Nationalsozialismus’. He states that lot 87 was sold to Mr. Steinmeyer, Luzern for Paul E. Geier, in Cincinnati. The reference to Paul Geier is an exercise in elliptical thinking, which is also repeated by provenance researcher Laurie Stein in a biting report that she wrote for the Swiss government on German-Swiss trafficking in “degenerate” works where she indicates that Paul Geier attended the sale and acquired several works including “The Red Horses.” It turns out that Paul was busy graduating from Harvard Law School while the Lucerne sale was well under way and that he had no knowledge of his future wife, Gabriele, nor of her interest in “degenerate” works of art. These types of mistakes, small as they may seem, are of a kind that raise our antennae about the accuracy of other information pertaining to the Lucerne auction and similar events.

Furthermore, numerous art sites on the Internet ascribe “The Red Horses” to a private collection or to an anonymous loan, when a bit of effort in research would have pointed out the identity of Gabriele as the owner of the work in question since 1939 and with her husband, Paul, since 1949. The Frick Museum’s online Art Reference Library (FRESCO) is the only source that gets it almost entirely right, naming Gabriele Geier as the owner since Lucerne.

Regardless of the above, several points come to mind:
  1. How did Gabriele Brougier zu Solms-Rodelheim und Assenheim know about the Lucerne sale and which pieces to acquire there? How did she feel about acquiring de-accessioned works because of their “degenerate” character, knowing that the funds would revert back to the German State?
  2. What was her relationship with Fritz Steinmeyer? Or did Steinmeyer acquire the works before contacting Gabriele Brougier to interest her in the Marc painting and in the Kokoschka as well?
  3. As with the other de-accessioned pieces sold at the Fischer Gallery in Lucern on June 30, 1939, our position is firm: the sale was illegal, the works were illegally removed from German State collections and, therefore, their ownership history will be forever tainted.
Last but not least, there is a file at the Central Intelligence Agency on Paul Esselborn Geier.