Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Restoring a Legacy" at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Art Deco platinum, carved emerald and diamond
brooch.  Austrian, circa 1937. Alphonse de
Rothschild gave this brooch to his wife Clarice
for their 25th wedding anniversary. It is on display
this weekend at the MFA Boston along with
the other recovered Rothschild treasures.

This weekend is the last opportunity (for now) to insert yourself into the living history of the Rothschild's good taste and the celebrated cultural heroes known as the Monuments Men. It is a story like no other. And the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is honoring the bravery of these men and the valor of one woman whose efforts recovered the lost treasury of her family more than 50 years after the war ended.

Bettina Looram de Rothschild was born to Alphonse and Clarice de Rothschild of Vienna. After fifty years of battling with the Austrian government, Bettina secured a partial recovery of the works of art stolen from her during the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1943.

After plundering the vast holdings of the Jews in Germany in 1942, Adolf Hitler turned his sights to nearby Austria. In the first stage of his plans for world domination, he asserted his new Divisions Laws to take possession of the private holdings of Jewish estate holders in Vienna.

The Rothschilds were the first to fall prey. In all, the Nazis confiscated almost 3,500 paintings, decorative arts, jewelry, furniture, tapestries, and woven rugs from the family. Much of it was carted away on trucks and trains and housed in salt mines. Other pieces were stashed in a castle in Neuschwantstein, though these might have been the collections of other branches of the Rothschild family.

A group of brave men and women, with the help of a brave German soul named Rose Valland, found the Fuhrer's stashes and managed to recover a significant portion of the stolen items, not only for the Rothschilds, but also for the many other collectors who had been victimized.

In his book, The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel reports that between the years 1943 and 1951, Hitler's men confiscated over five million culturally significant works, including paintings, jewelry, statuary, furniture, and other works of art from throughout Europe.{1} He had these pieces stored in monasteries, castles, and salt mines, where they were crated and stacked and boxed up, but only after a careful inventory was made of nearly every single piece.

This was a precise operation, though when the pieces were discovered they were found "crammed tightly onto shelves or [in] piles of crates," some of which had never even been opened after their initial seizure.{2} The Rothschild collections were finally returned to Bettina Looram de Rothschild, thanks to Rose Valland and the Monuments Men, in 1947.

However, as they were making their way to New York, by way of Austria, the Austrian government enlisted their own seizure laws, requiring that the heiress "donate" 250 of the pieces to the Austrian government as a sort of tariff for safe transport of the rest to the United States. For the next 50 years, Bettina fought for the full return of her family's collections to the family.

In 1999, Austria passed a national restitution law, and a portion of those works were returned to Bettina. The family then orchestrated a record-setting auction through Christie's in New York, during which most of these items were sold for a total of $90 million dollars.{3}

This year, in honor of her mother's courage and fortitude, and in honor of a museum that she loves, Bettina Looram de Rothschild's daughter, named Bettina Burr, has donated 186 objects of art, originally owned by her grandparents Alphonse and Clarice de Rothschild of Austria, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

She could not have conceived of a more fitting way to honor the legacy of her forbears and the courage of her mother. A selection of these works is now on display through the end of this weekend only. To step into the gallery where history is housed is to step into the shoes of those who first conceived of the collection and into the shoes of those who gave of themselves to preserve and recover it.

"Restoring a Legacy: Rothschild Family Treasures" is a must-see exhibition for anyone interested in world history, arts and culture, or bravery and courage. For more information, we invite you to visit the MFA website.


  1. Edsel, Robert M. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Center Street Hachette Book Group, 2009.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kinsella, Eileen. "MFA Boston Acquires What's Left of Legendary Rothschild Collection," ArtNet News, February 24, 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment