Courts & Crime

Was Fort Worth museum's statue hiding sordid sales history?

FORT WORTH, Texas -- For a museum director, receiving a call from Robert Edsel is like getting a call from the Internal Revenue Service for the rest of us. It stimulates the gastric juices as the mind whirls, "OMG, what now?"

Edsel is the author of "Rescuing Da Vinci" and "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History," chronicles of Nazi art thefts and their ultimate recovery during World War II. In the course of his ongoing research, Edsel finds evidence that great works of art thought to have provenances unblemished by Nazi ownership are not as clean as their current owners believe them to be. So a call from Edsel could spell problems that range from merely troublesome to financially disastrous.

Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, received one of Edsel's calls in December 2009, and he remembers it clearly: "He invited me to lunch. He said he wanted to show me something."

A few months earlier, Edsel had been in Germany doing research for his current writing project, Saving Italy. He was flipping though photographic archives when he came across what he calls "a smoking-gun photo." It showed the Kimbell's terra cotta bust of Renaissance art patron Isabelle d'Este being removed from the Altaussee salt mine, where Adolf Hitler stored the looted art he planned to use in the Führer museum.

Edsel recognized the sculpture immediately and knew it had to be the Kimbell's and not a copy because of the vertical firing-line cracks on the sculpture's front. He also knew that the Kimbell was not aware that the piece had spent time in Hitler's art hideout.

There was a problem with the Kimbell's provenance on the sculpture -- one that could leave it liable for restitution.

It would take the Kimbell nearly two years and thousands of miles of travel to find out why this artwork, in its collection since 2004, had been stowed in the Nazi salt mine, and what it might have to do about it.

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