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The Restoration Artist

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New York Times - ART & DESIGN SECTION

Secrets of Nazi Art Rescue Continue as Long Lost Vault Yields Frozen Treasure By SHARON CARTER

October 6, 2016

Within days after it was discovered that an 85-year-old man had hoarded hundreds of artworks collected by his mentor during the Nazi era in an unmarked Siberian bunker, the world gasped at the prospect of rediscovering long-lost treasures.

This week, two months after the discovery of the bunker inherited by Aleksander Lukin, the vault was finally opened. Past seismic activity had damaged the structure, which delayed the excavation.

Once the three foot thick door was removed, though, workers were met with shocking conditions. It was quickly discovered that while the inner chamber remained structurally intact, a breach in the antiquated ventilation system had allowed snowmelt to flood the vault. Over time the underground facility had turned into a giant freezer, trapping the contents in solid ice for decades.

The collection contains over 500 items, including not only paintings, sculptures, sketches, and drawings but also ledgers and other documentation, most of which will not be disclosed until a full investigation on the provenance of the pieces has been concluded.

Most of the finest works in the collection were acquired by the late Mr. Lukin’s mentor, Vasily Karpov, an art dealer who began smuggling art out of Nazi Germany in 1938. Among other accolades, Karpov was also one of the original founders of Shield’s, the world-renowned auction house based out of New York. Just as Shield’s is known for conservation efforts, Karpov’s efforts mostly focused on rescuing art that had been dubbed ‘degenerate’ by the National Socialist party, and brokered deals for Jewish families attempting to exchange their collections for passage out of Nazi occupied territory. While Karpov’s motives are scrutinized by some historians as war profiteering, Karpov bypassed checkpoints by requiring the first party owners of the work to travel with it. This established an art-fueled underground railroad that allowed many Jewish families to escape persecution and they themselves considered the man a hero.

Lukin left his possessions, including the now infamous art hoard, to Shield’s, and a number of their top art historians were on site to assess the finding. Not all were disappointed in what they uncovered.

“In a way this could be a blessing,” said Philip Coulson, long time art historian for Shield’s. “Despite the level of damage and decay caused from exposure to the elements, we’ll still be able to identify much of what’s been stored here. Even if we can’t salvage anything, what we’re most excited for are some answers.”

There is evidence that the vault may contain works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Fabergé, Otto Dix, and other masters, though only one piece in the collection has been identified to the press, and is perhaps the most mysterious. The single portrait was recovered from the vault while keeping it encased in ice in an effort to protect it from succumbing to rapid decay. Coulson identified the subject as a lone American soldier from the Second World War, artist is unknown.

The rest of the hoard, according to Alexander Pierce, Chairman of Shield’s, will remain on site as they are carefully excavated from their frigid prison.

“I know this sounds like a disaster,” said Pierce. “We are doing all we can to safely relocate the rest of the collection and identify more that may be somewhere in one of Lukin’s many properties and holdings. Later in life, the man became fairly eccentric. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found some kind of message that he left behind.”

Whether or not this one, frozen painting was left as some clue leading to the rest of the collection or simply abandoned due to relatively unremarkable provenance has yet to be determined.

The single recovered painting has been dubbed The Winter Soldier due to the condition it was found in. It will be transported to a world-class restoration department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in hopes that the painting can be salvaged.

For now the mystery of the Lukin art hoard will continue to baffle the art world and historians alike, until The Winter Soldier can tell his own story.

About Shield’s

Shield’s, the world's leading art business, had global auction, private, and digital sales in first half of 2016 that totalled £2.35 billion / $3 billion. Shield’s is a name and place that speaks of extraordinary art, unparalleled service and expertise, as well as international glamour. Shield’s offers around 350 auctions annually in over 80 categories, including all areas of fine and decorative arts, jewellery, photographs, collectibles, wine, and more. Prices range from $200 to over $100 million. Shield’s also has a long and successful history conducting private sales for its clients in all categories, with emphasis on Post-War & Contemporary, Impressionist & Modern, Old Masters, and Jewellery. With an origin in protecting cultural property throughout political, social, and environmental turmoil, Shield’s is the very icon of art conservation the world over.

Alongside regular sales online, Shield’s has a global presence in 46 countries, with 10 salerooms around the world in London, New York, Paris, Geneva, Milan, Amsterdam, Dubai, Zürich, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

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“I’m telling you, Peg,” Steve says, unmoved. “It’s a forgery.”

Peggy drops the file on her tidy desk, Steve’s meticulously detailed notes on the Bouguereau slapping the polished wood with a distinct sound of managerial frustration that Peggy usually holds back with him.

“A forgery?” Peggy repeats, only partially curious. “Do you know that piece was already appraised decades ago? And it was inherited, never sold as an authentic Bouguereau.”

Steve takes in a breath, anxiously watching her pick at the printouts of his findings like a pile of dirty socks. He’s been trying to be better, more patient, but the pause only seems to fill his head with more steam and he tumbles ahead despite himself. “So there’s obvious oxidation around the edges of the stretchers, the linen’s in good shape but there’s a little rot developing where the stretchers have gone soft from old age. I did an alcohol fume test but it was hard as a rock.”

“I’m not hearing anything that shouts ‘forgery’ so far,” Peggy patiently reasons, spreading a few of the lab notes out in front of her. “Ultraviolet, infrared… I see it even passed autoradiography scans. You must have put in some overtime to run that test over the weekend…” Steve senses the question there, but also the judgement. The sudden dip in her tone isn’t quite disapproving, but certainly unhappy. “How were the tacks on the back? And the leather pads?”

“I did it on my own time,” Steve confesses, just to get the question of overtime pay out of the way. “Tacks are rusty, like you’d expect from a turn of the century painting, and it passed standard x-ray analysis. But then I went ahead and put it through the new synchrotron x-ray bed we got from Delft University...” Steve goes through this part quickly when Peggy’s eyebrows shoot up. Technically he is supposed to get formal approval before using the new Dutch tool to conduct the relatively experimental (and costly) fluorescence mapping. “ -And found a layer under the sizing, with trace elements of Hg and Sb in red and light tones. You can see I did an approximate color reconstruction of those tones and found a completely anachronistic painting underneath. Next page, there,” he adds, as she shuffles through the paper.

Peggy looks at the evidence, right there in black and white, of a Coca-cola bottle gripped tightly in a straining fist. Obviously not a typical subject for a French artist in the 1880’s. “So whomever copied the original Bouguereau didn’t want to obliterate their own masterpiece before taking advantage of the antique canvas,” Peggy smirks, shakes her head. “Typical artist pride.”

Even though there isn’t much to Steve’s narrow chest, he puffs it out indignantly and crosses his arms tightly with a huff. “Forger pride.”

Peggy gives him a sharp look. “And as usual, you’re not listening,” she insists, leveling a hard look his way with her dark, brown eyes. “Just because it’s a copy doesn’t mean it’s a forgery. There’s a distinct difference.”

“Maybe in the eyes of the law. Not in the eyes of–” Steve stops, hand halfway to his file. “Or… does The Met already know?”

In this case ‘The Met’ refers to Director Fury, Chairman and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Peggy’s direct superior. As the head of the Department of Restoration and Conservation, surely she would have let Fury know there was a forged masterpiece sitting in The Met’s very own lab? Steve takes a seat, because of course she did, and that meant the museum was fine with investing significant resources in propping up a lie that puts their reputation on the line.

Great. Happy Monday.

Peggy sighs. “Look, I know you’ve only been at this for a couple months...” That’s her very British way of reminding Steve that he’s young—likely the youngest member of The Met’s staff outside of the fellowship interns—but Steve can already tell there’s more to it than that. Even though he still feels new in the professional art world, he’d learned very quickly how often politics come into play. “We have a beautiful painting downstairs. A beautiful painting with a beautiful history as part of a private collection. Monsieur La Rochelle brought it here of his own good faith that we could help restore it, and that’s what we should do. He may already know the painting was created by some hand other than that of William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It’s not our obligation to humiliate him.”

“It’s our obligation to tell the truth,” Steve says, because it should be as straightforward as that. Even though he knows he’s losing this fight, he’ll be damned if he doesn’t go down swinging. “I guess we already cashed Monsieur La Rochelle’s check, though.”

“I want to see a restoration plan in my inbox by end of day,” Peggy orders sharply in response, and who is Steve kidding? Of course he’d already lost this fight the moment he walked in the door.

“And if the public finds out The Met is restoring forgeries?” Steve asks, collecting his notes. There isn’t any point to taking them, he’s going to have to throw them in the shredder as soon as he gets back to his lab, but he needs something to look at while the blood in his face heats.

“We’ll have that discussion with Monsieur La Rochelle,” Peggy assures him in a softer tone. She could always see straight through him, and hiding his face would do nothing to hide his embarrassment. “We just have to be careful about it when we walk him through your restoration plan.”

Despite Peggy’s assurance, it all still stinks like a cover up, but he swallows any obnoxious response before it can bubble out. Steve is so hung up on the politics of the decision that he nearly marches out the door before absorbing the restoration plan deadline.

“End of day?” he asks, and touches his hearing aid in a nervous habit. He heard her just fine, but usually he’s given at least two days for a full restoration plan. Is this his punishment for wasting the weekend researching his forged Bouguereau? Or using the Delft x-ray without permission? But Peggy shrugs with a smile, the tension between them already waning.

“We’ve got a tight deadline on our next restoration,” she tells him, a sly little smile hinting that there’s more to it than that. Steve flicks through his mental catalogue of work lined up for his lab, trying to predict which one is getting rush priority. The Chegall is still in transport, the Gerome painting on hold while the owners decided where they wanted to source the new stretchers from, the Vermeer is going back to Amsterdam tomorrow...

“Something new?” Steve asks, doing the math.

“Been reading the news lately?” Peggy pushes a copy of the New York Times across her polished desk towards him, folded into a tight rectangle to frame a particular headline in the Arts & Design section.

Steve pulls the paper towards him, feels the soft give of newsprint under his overlarge, calloused fingers, then looks up so quickly that he has to adjust his glasses. “The Lukin vault?”

Peggy nods.

“But they’ve only taken one piece out of Russia so far.”

Another nod.

Steve considers the information, trying to recall why he never gave much thought to the possibility of getting his hands on the lost art. “Doesn’t it belong to Shield’s or something already? I read there was some kind of historical relationship that gave them everything.”

“I spoke to Alexander Pierce myself,” Peggy says with a touch of pride. “He’s transferring the painting here tomorrow.”

Steve can hardly believe it. “Don’t one of the more senior restorers want to work with it? And Shield’s probably has an army of restorers they could hire.”

“Oh, Steve, don’t be so modest,” Peggy says with a proud grin. “Your combined background in conservation and restoration of oils make you the ideal candidate to work on it. Besides, Shield’s is facing so much scrutiny from both the United States and Russian governments they are eager to have such a prestigious institution like The Met work on it, rather than hide it away in some private lab.”

Steve had almost felt the swell of pride before Peggy had got to the political angle yet again, but the sting of it is significantly soothed by the opportunity itself. Steve’s already fantasizing about what such a painting might look like after spending seventy-five years frozen in ice. He glances up again, realizing Peggy had continued while he’d spaced out, but she doesn’t seem to have noticed.

They go on to discuss the particulars of the project, the special cold storage tents they will temporarily set up on the lawn, the various temp staff that will be on loan from Shield’s to assist Steve in handling the work, and their overall time table. She also tells him she’ll take care of the situation with Monsieur La Rochelle to give Steve time to focus on this project.

“I want you one hundred percent focused on how we’re going to crack that one,” she says, letting him get back to work.

Carefully, Steve immediately thinks, staring down at the newsprint, repeating in his mind everything he knows about the mysterious Nazi treasure hoard kept in a Siberian vault that had been lost, forgotten, flooded. The only piece that the Russians hadn’t immediately locked down in probate when they’d finally opened it up was a single painting, oil on canvas, artist unknown, and frozen solid in a block of ice.

The Winter Soldier himself will be in Steve’s very own lab, one of the toughest restoration projects he could imagine. Steve skims the article, reading again about the conservators on site keeping it frozen for now. His fingers twitch at the thought of how he could even get started with such a monumental effort.

Very, very carefully.

“Oh, and Steve,” Peggy says, calling him back down to earth. “What made you even think to test the Bouguereau in the first place?”

Steve blinks, already having forgotten about the painting he’s supposed to be working on for the rest of the day. “Lines of grease on the back,” he explains simply. “When they baked the painting to set the layers of glaze, they didn’t use a clean oven rack.”

Peggy snorts, and shakes her head. “Artists,” she judges. Steve inclines his head towards her, as if to say, what can you expect?

By the time Steve gets back downstairs, he’s already thought of a dozen complications with thawing an oil painting based on whatever the artist used to seal the painting alone. If it was painted within the decade of the second World War, which the Times article indicates, then it likely isn’t varnished, since varnish itself had been rationed at the time. After the war, it’d tragically fell out of favor just as a matter of taste. He gets it, he really does, that modern artists prefer the natural beauty of the chromatic pigments to stand on their own without the Photoshop gaussian-blur filter equivalent of the traditional art world coating their finished compositions.

Still, that hard, protective layer certainly makes Steve’s job as a conservator and restorer a hell of a lot easier. Non-varnished paintings are a pain to work on, doubly so if the artists who’d created them are still alive and sending furious emails to one’s boss about ‘butchered’ masterpieces.

Maybe Alexander Pierce knows more than what was reported to the papers? If Lukin—or the original collector, Karpov—was known for buying from specific artists, that could narrow down what kind of booby traps he should watch out for. A European artist attempting to recreate a 19th century technique may have even used copal varnish, which will disintegrate if Steve uses mineral spirits to evenly thaw the ice. On the other hand, mineral spirits might be the easiest way to thaw it if The Winter Soldier’s artist had used the varnish mixed with standoil that was more popular in the 20th century. Then again, maybe simple saline will work—unless of course the painting isn’t varnished at all, in which case he may as well use a sandblaster.

Steve stops at the bottom of the stairs to catch his breath, asthma threatening him with a tickle against the bottom of his lungs, sharp like the point of a knife. He takes another look at the newspaper from Peggy’s office while he breathes deep to dislodge it. They specifically said the subject of Winter was an American soldier, which suddenly strikes Steve as out of place in a Russian art hoard as lines of pizza grease are on the back of a Bouguereau.

 


Incredible artwork of The Winter Soldier frozen in ice, by Cryo-Bucky! [Click for full size]