Pensive Young Brunette

Pensive Young Brunette
Philadelphia Museum of Art

My name is Pensive Young Brunette. I am a small oil painting in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

My painter, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, was well known, mostly for his landscapes in France during the mid-nineteenth century. When Claude Monet spoke of him, he said, “We are nothing compared to him, nothing.”

It was a long and arduous journey that brought me here to Philadelphia.

Decades after he painted me, during the last few years of his life, Camille Corot’s paintings were in high demand. After his death in 1875, I moved through several different Paris collections before I was bought in the early 1900s by one of France’s most important prewar collectors, Alphonse Kahn. He had a townhouse near Paris, which held an impressive collection of over 1200 pieces. It included works by Picasso, Leger, Braque, Juan Gris, Matisse, Rousseau, and many others.

In the spring of 1940, it was known that the Nazis were approaching Paris. Kahn, who was Jewish, quickly fled to Britain, leaving no time to hide or take me and the rest of his collection. We became known as abandoned property and were seized by a special Nazi task force. After I was confiscated, I was sent to be catalogued. This was a very common occurrence in occupied territories at the time.

Five years later, I was discovered in an Austrian salt mine. Like many works of art looted during the war, I had the markings used by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), a commission that organized the work confiscated from private collections. It identified the origins of these works of art. My marking was “Ka 38,” which traced me back to Paris and to Kahn.

The system was well organized, and helped trace many pieces to their owners, making it easier to return the stolen work. It is unknown where I was during those five years, or how I got to the salt mine. I was returned to a representative of Kahn the following year.

Shortly after I was returned, I was placed at the Andre Weil Gallery, which sold me to Louis E. Stern, an American collector. Mr. Stern donated me, along with a collection of 250 works of art, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1963.  Also included was Gustave Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea, another work stolen by the Nazis. It had been taken even though its original owner had hidden it in a vault. Five suits of armor at the PMA were not so lucky; it was discovered that they too had been stolen during the war but never returned to their owner. This was unknown to the collector who donated them to the museum, and they had to be returned.

Now the PMA researches the history of all pieces that have a possibility of being illegally obtained. They then post our entire history on their website. My records of provenance are intact and available for anyone to see.

I was lucky. There are so many well-known works of art that disappeared during this time, ending up in private and museum collections without records of provenance. There are many missing or disputed pieces caught up in lawsuits claiming ownership and seeking the return to owners or their estates.

Now when a museum collects works of art, artifacts, or antiquities, it is not assumed that they were acquired legally. If there is not paperwork showing the work’s provenance, institutions may not be interested in acquiring them. It’s not just theft or spoils of war that has fueled these efforts to place work with its rightful owners. There are now laws demanding the return of certain types of sacred objects, funerary, and human remains.

As for the rest of the collection that I once hung with in Paris, there was a group established in 1990 to try to reconstruct its history and to recover works still missing. This work is ongoing. There have been inquiries with many collections, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Museum of Modern Art in New York, where a total of 15 works were identified by the museum with incomplete provenance records during the World War II era.

Alphonse Kahn, my previous owner, died in 1948. He never returned to France, and never got to see me again.

My history on the Philadelphia Museum of Art site