Works of art looted by the Nazis remain a subject of much fascination in the 21st century. This year’s movie Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren as a Los Angeles woman battling in court to get back her aunt’s Gustav Klimt painting did well at the box office. Last year’s George Clooney-directed Monuments Men about WWII art historians fighting Nazi plunderers also made decent money, despite its stilted style.
On the other hand, the Communist pillage of the art treasures of Russia is a topic that seldom comes up, even though European democracies had devoted much effort in the 1920s trying to keep Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin from fencing their stolen goods abroad. Sean McMeekin‘s 2008 book History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks made little impression on the media mind.
The subject of Bolshevik-looted art is sometimes broached under a headline about the Nazis” subsequent thievery. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported last April:
The Norton Simon Museum was dealt another legal setback Thursday in its bid to hold onto prized 16th century paintings of Adam and Eve that were looted by the Nazis during World War II and have hung in its galleries in Pasadena since the 1970s.
at a 1931 auction in which the seller was the Soviet Union”which, according to the Norton Simon Museum’s disputed theory of the case, had confiscated them from a family of Russian aristocrats during the 1920s….
The museum has contended that the Dutch government acted properly in 1966 by selling the paintings to an American heir of that Russian family, the Stroganoffs. He, in turn, sold them to museum founder Norton Simon in 1971.
I was reminded of the Nazi-Communist art-booty disparity last week when I stopped in at the Hammer Museum on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards in Los Angeles after a doctor’s appointment at the UCLA Medical Center. In case you were wondering, this compact but lavish art museum doesn”t actually display hammers. It was built by Occidental Petroleum in 1990 at a cost to the shareholders of $96 million to house the personal art collection of Oxy Pete’s celebrated CEO Armand Hammer (1898″1990), who had been a friend of V.I. Lenin’s and R.M. Nixon’s.
Hammer had been one of the most famous men in the world during the dÃ©tente era of the 1970s, frequently being photographed at the side of Leonid Brezhnev. He was a glamorous figure with a sterling reputation as a public-spirited philanthropist.
The one flaw in his renown was that Hammer had to plead guilty in 1976 to secretly donating cash to Nixon’s CREEP. He escaped prison by appearing for sentencing in a wheelchair, accompanied by elaborate heart-monitoring equipment.
Hammer quickly made a remarkable recovery. The conviction barely tarnished his carefully burnished reputation, although the scandal may have kept him from his lifelong ambition of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. (He did come close: In 1989, after George H.W. Bush had pardoned him, he evidently finished second to the Dalai Lama.)
The Hammer Museum in Westwood is managed by UCLA. Besides the tycoon’s collection of European classics by such legends as van Gogh and Rembrandt, the museum emphasizes Los Angeles artists who are, ideally, black.
(That’s prudent positioning. When I was at UCLA in the early 1980s, Westwood was L.A.’s nightlife center for upscale white and Asian youth. But a 1988 shoot-out between crack gangs inadvertently killed graphic artist Karen Toshima, after which tout le monde departed for the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Westwood, while still posh, has never quite recovered.)
Or, best of all, black and gay, such as the Hammer’s currently featured artist Mark Bradford. The museum’s website explains that Bradford’s work comprises
ruminations on the body in crisis…. Examining the moment and afterlife of the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles, which he experienced from his studio in Leimert Park, Bradford has translated the outrage and lasting wounds of the riots into these new paintings…. Bradford’s early identification as an artist emerging in the mid-1980s was informed by queer and feminist politics during the developing AIDS crisis. With these works, he explodes the deep cultural fears and misrepresentations that misconceive of black identity and gender as one-dimensional, providing a trenchant critique of pervasive cultural racism and homophobia in society as a whole.
Granted, the explicatory prose is eye-glazing, but nobody is holding a gun to the heads of visitors to the Hammer Museum to force them to read the ponderous text or even bother with Bradford’s art, such as it is.
The chief pleasure of visiting an art museum is less in looking at the paintings than in hanging out in some absurdly expensive robber baron’s lair. Tom Wolfe explained that rightful access to conspicuous consumption creates a sense of well-being. Rightful access comes cheap at the Hammer Museum. Due to strong fund-raising among Los Angeles” great and good, admission is free and parking is only $3. And if the architecture and art don”t suffice to create enough well-being, happy-hour beers are $4. Moreover, the museum’s pleasant courtyard features engagingly goofy frat-house time-killers such as Ping-Pong tables and Thomas Heatherwick’s Spun Chairs that whirl around when you try to sit in them.
But the really entertaining thing about the Hammer Museum is how nobody mentions just how amusing the founder’s life was.
Art museums are typically the bequests of ruthless capitalists. The core of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, for example, are the 21 Old Masters that banker and oilman Andrew Mellon bought off Stalin’s regime in the early 1930s via New York’s Knoedler art gallery.
Similarly, the imperious Getty Center that looms a few miles to the north of the Hammer Museum is the legacy of J. Paul Getty, a notorious tightwad”he installed a coin-operated pay phone at his English country manor”who made his money off Saudi oil.
But Hammer was not just a corrupt capitalist who made his big score in Libyan oil. He was also, it became clear after his death with the publication of Edward Jay Epstein’s 1996 muckraking biography Dossier, a corrupt Communist capitalist, a Socialist sociopath, a Bolshevist billionaire. Hammer ranks with the odious Robert Maxwell as both a white-collar criminal and a Soviet spy and fence.
Following the October Revolution, the New York-born Hammer took over his Communist father’s interests in the nascent Soviet Union. Soon Lenin was instructing Stalin to give his “particular support” to the young American go-getter because “this is a small path to the American “business” world and this path should be made use of in every way.”
Eventually, Hammer returned to America to fence art expropriated by the Soviets. He took his act on the road, touring Midwestern department stores with his Romanov Treasures exhibit, permitting the provincial rubes to buy counterfeit FabergÃ© Easter eggs. To promote his various scams, Hammer wrote a book with a foreword by his close personal friend Walter Duranty, The New York Times“ Moscow correspondent who won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on how there wasn”t a famine in the Ukraine.