Aca­demic re­signs in art restora­tion row

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY RACHEL FLETCHER

A PRO­FES­SOR em­broiled in a row over fin­ders’ fees for lo­cat­ing Nazi-looted art has re­signed from a prom­i­nent post at his Holo­caust-stud­ies cen­tre in Cal­i­for­nia. Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Petropou­los has de­nied that his res­ig­na­tion had any­thing to do with the row, but sources in the art world are con­vinced that it led to his stand­ing down.

Prof Petropou­los has re­signed as di­rec­tor of Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege’s Cen­tre for the Study of the Holo­caust, Geno­cide and Hu­man Rights, just out­side Los An­ge­les, though he re­mains a his­tory pro­fes­sor at the col­lege.

He was the sub­ject of an in­ter­nal in­quiry at the col­lege af­ter he and a Ger­man art dealer, Peter Griebert, re­quested an 18 per cent fin­ders’ fee from Gisela Fis­cher for the re­turn of a Camille Pis­sarro paint­ing, looted by the Gestapo in 1938 when her fam­ily fled Vi­enna.

In his res­ig­na­tion let­ter, Prof Petropou­los stated: “Even though I strongly be­lieve I en­gaged in ap­pro­pri­ate and eth­i­cal con­duct, I recog­nise that this mat­ter is a con­tin­u­ing dis­trac­tion that places an un­nec­es­sary bur­den on the ef­fec­tive op­er­a­tions of the cen­tre.”

He told the JC: “I would add that my first loves are my teach­ing and my re­search and that I wel­come the op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus again on those ac­tiv­i­ties.

“I have stepped down from the di­rec­tor­ship of a re­search in­sti­tute be­fore (I was di­rec­tor of the Gould Cen­tre for Hu­man­is­tic Stud­ies at CMC), and it is cus­tom­ary for direc­tors to ro­tate in and out of th­ese po­si­tions.”

The paint­ing, Le Quai Malaquais, Prin­temps, was found in Switzer­land by the Art Loss Reg­is­ter, which hired Prof Petropou­los as a con­sul­tant.

The pro­fes­sor, work­ing with art dealer Peter Griebert, tried to ex­tract a fee be­fore putting Mrs Fis­cher in con­tact with the paint­ing’s own­ers.

Mr Griebert was later dis­cov­ered to have con­nec­tions with Nazi looter Bruno Lohse. The paint­ing was dis­cov­ered in a bank vault reg­is­tered to Lohse’s Schonart An­stalt Trust, which Mr Griebert was found to have en­tered over 20 times since 1988.

In an in­ter­nal in­quiry, the pro­fes­sor was cleared of le­gal wrong­do­ing by the univer­sity. In a state­ment, it said that Prof Petropou­los had “ad­hered to ap­pli­ca­ble, con­trac­tual, and le­gal obli­ga­tions in at­tempt­ing to ar­range for the re­turn of the paint­ing. In ad­di­tion, the col­lege con­cluded that Pro­fes­sor Petropou­los’s ac­count of his ac­tions was ac­cu­rate.

“Not­with­stand­ing th­ese find­ings, Pro­fes­sor Petropou­los has de­ter­mined that it is in the best in­ter­est of the Cen­tre for the Study of the Holo­caust, Geno­cide, and Hu­man Rights for him to step aside from his cur­rent po­si­tion as di­rec­tor at the con­clu­sion of this aca­demic year.”

Mrs Fis­cher, 78, speak­ing from her Zurich home, said it was “about time” that Prof Petropou­los re­signed, but de­clined to com­ment fur­ther. She has still not had the paint­ing re­stored to her: a spokesman for the Crim­i­nal Court in Mu­nich, Ger­many, said on Fri­day that an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into pos­si­ble ex­tor­tion by Prof Petropou­los and Mr Griebert was con­tin­u­ing. Swiss au­thor­i­ties are hold­ing the paint­ing as ev­i­dence in the case.

The Com­mis­sion for Looted Art in Europe said: “All those who are en­gaged in this field have a duty to treat eth­i­cally in­for­ma­tion de­rived from a re­la­tion­ship with a for­mer Nazi.”

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