Academic resigns in art restoration row

By Rachel Fletcher, April 18, 2008
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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.”

    Last updated: 5:26pm, May 13 2008