RISD Announces Decision on Art Claim Made by the Alphonse Kann Association

March 5, 2018

Provenance research demonstrates that Picasso painting was not stolen from Kann during WWII, and was lawfully purchased by the RISD Museum in 1951

PROVIDENCE, RI - After commissioning an international investigation by a leading provenance research expert, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) today announced that it has denied a claim made by the Kann Association for a painting by Pablo Picasso which has been in the RISD Museum’s collection since 1951. Extensive provenance research found that the Picasso painting was not among the artworks looted from Alphonse Kann by the Nazi regime, as the Kann Association had claimed.

The extensive research demonstrates that the painting was lawfully purchased 67 years ago from a gallery whose principals had dealt directly with Kann and his estate on a number of artworks from the 1930s through the 1950s. Handling the 1951 acquisition for RISD was its then-curator Heinrich Schwartz – himself an emigre who had fled Austria for the United States after the Nazi Occupation.

The Kann Association represents the heirs of Alphonse Kann, a prominent European art collector and dealer active in Paris in the early part of the 20th century. The claim to RISD questioned the ownership path of the Picasso painting and contended that it was looted from Kann’s collection in 1940 during the Nazi Occupation of France. The research commissioned by RISD supports a conclusion that this painting was not looted from Kann or anyone else.Per RISD’s commitment to transparency, it has shared the research findings and source documents with the claimants.

The Cubist painting, Femme assise au livre (Seated Woman with a Book), (c.a. 1910-12) was purchased from the Carstairs Gallery in the U.S. by the RISD Museum in 1951 for the fair market price of $1,600. The painting has regularly been on public display at the Museum since. While no documented record of where the Carstairs Gallery acquired the painting is known to exist, the painting has long been identified as having once been in Kann’s collection.

RISD President Rosanne Somerson said, “RISD and its Board of Trustees are committed to upholding the highest standards of integrity and academic scholarship. Our approach to reviewing this claim was no exception, and our search for the truth has been guided by a careful and thorough review of the experts’ extensive research. Our goal was to understand the full complexity of this issue with a clear-eyed view of the objective facts related to the particular history of this 100-year-old painting. RISD’s leadership has the utmost sympathy for the Kann family and for the families of all those who suffered during the Holocaust.”

RISD Museum Director John W. Smith said, “The integrity of the RISD Museum and the artwork it houses are the very foundation of the value the Museum provides to our communities. As our history reflects, we are wholly committed to maintaining and continuing to enhance the Museum’s robust and long-established vetting and provenance research process for all items within our collection.”

The Picasso painting was the subject of an initial claim from the Kann Association in 2010, followed by a second claim in 2015.

The Kann Association’s Initial Claim in 2010
Upon receiving the initial claim, RISD commissioned internationally respected provenance expert Laurie Stein to gather all available facts about Alphonse Kann and the painting’s history. Committed to finding the truth, RISD charged Stein with following the facts wherever they led.

The seizure of more than 1,200 artworks from Kann’s collection in Paris was meticulously documented by Nazis authorities, and Kann and his representatives recorded their exhaustive post–World War II recovery efforts. All but a handful of the artworks looted from Kann’s collection were recovered by the early 1950s. Despite the extensive historical documentation located and reviewed by the expert researchers, the Museum’s Picasso painting does not appear on any stolen art lists or recovery documentation related to Kann’s collection. Since the Kann Association’s founding in the 1990s, it has made a number of claims – some of which, upon close examination of the historical research, have been shown to be valid, while others have not.

Stein and RISD’s curatorial staff consulted numerous archives, examined thousands of documents, and interviewed Kann and Picasso experts in an investigation spanning France, Portugal, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.

RISD carefully reviewed Stein’s exhaustive provenance report as well as primary source historical documents. Based upon the research findings, RISD rejected the claim in 2012, with the understanding that should new research or documents become available, RISD would reevaluate its position.

The Kann Association’s Renewed Claim in 2015
When the claim was reasserted in 2015 via the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which was asked by the Kann Association to examine the claim, RISD commissioned Stein and additional experts in the U.S. and France to research any newly available information. This updated research was recently completed, and a full report of the findings was provided to RISD’s leadership and Board of Trustees. After further consideration of the existing information and the new report, RISD agrees with Stein’s finding that the Picasso, while once owned by Kann, was not looted from his collection by the Nazi regime.

Extensive Provenance Research
RISD has long been aware of the painting’s past ownership by Alphonse Kann – as evidenced by the Museum’s citation of the work as “Formerly: Coll. Alphonse Kann, Paris” on an early inventory card produced upon acquisition into the collection. Kann lived in France and was one of the country’s largest private art collectors and dealers prior to World War II. He resided in London from 1940 until his death in 1948.

The two investigations commissioned by RISD spanned the U.S. and Europe, where numerous archives were researched, thousands of documents were examined, and interviews were conducted with Picasso and Kann experts. The Kann Association has not provided any additional documents or research that support its claims.

The provenance experts’ research offers many reasons for its conclusion. For example, it shows that while Kann’s looted art collection was well documented, and Kann, his longtime partner, and others were involved in extensive post-war recovery efforts for these artworks, Femme assise au livre does not appear on any inventory lists compiled by the Nazi regime as part of its appropriation or by Kann and his representative during their own recovery efforts.

The source documents include a photograph from the 1920s of the interior of Kann’s Paris residence that clearly shows the Picasso painting (among other artworks).Yet despite having this photograph in front of them during their post-war recovery efforts, Kann and his representatives never identified this particular painting as having been taken.

The research also examined the history of the Carstairs Gallery and its documented dealings with Kann and his estate on other artworks, Carstairs’ and its principals’ solid reputations, and comparable sales of similar Picasso paintings at the time of the acquisition to ensure a fair price was paid.

Consistent with RISD’s transparent and open approach to the historical research, RISD freely shared all of the provenance expert’s research with the Kann representatives.

About the RISD Museum
Established in 1877 as part of a vibrant creative community, the RISD Museum stewards works of art representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. We interpret our collection with the focus on the maker and we deeply engage with art and artists, presenting ideas and perspectives that can be inspiring and complex. We aspire to create an accessible and inclusive environment that builds meaningful relationships across all communities. For more information: 401-454-6500, or risdmuseum.org.