UNIVERSITY PARK — The SMU Meadows Museum, known as one of America's great university museums, recently discovered three of its most prominent works have a breathtaking past.
They were part of the biggest art heist in the history of the world: Adolf Hitler's systematic plundering of priceless art from Jewish families.
The paintings' history was discovered by Robert Edsel, the director of Monuments Men Foundation in Dallas. The group identifies and returns priceless art that was stolen from Jewish families.
"They're not just treasures of civilization, but they're representative of families who lost their lives and had everything stolen from them — sometimes, including their lives,” said Edsel.
While doing research for his own book about stolen Nazi art, Edsel stumbled across the SMU link. There in an old photo from Germany, after World War II, was a painting Edsel had seen before.
"That's got to be the same painting," Edsel remembers thinking.
It was the multi-million dollar Spanish masterpiece "Saint Justa" — part of a famous pair of paintings by the renowned artist by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.
It was the same painting Edsel knew well from the Meadows Museum at SMU.
Then Edsel spotted another photo from Germany. In it, "Saint Rufina," the companion piece to the first painting.
"In fact, we believe these two paintings were stolen,” said Edsel.
"Naturally, at first, I think it was surprise,” said Nicole Atzbach the assistant curator at the Meadows.
The truth behind the Murillo paintings was found on the back of their frames. Each had a number — now long-faded. The more legible, behind "Saint Justa," reads "R1171." That’s a Nazi code used to inventory stolen art.
"There was no doubt about it, because R1171 stood for Rothschild, R, 1171 — the 1,171st object stolen from the Rothschilds," Edsel explained. "In fact, they stole more than 6,000 things."
So there's no doubt the pieces at the Meadows were looted by the Nazis.
And there's also no doubt that the Meadows purchased the pieces at auction.
So to whom do these multi-million-dollar masterpieces now belong? That question has not yet been answered.
SMU has hired art experts in London and Paris to follow the Nazis' meticulous paperwork and fill in one missing gap in the paintings' chain of custody.
After the war, museum curators serving in the military recovered millions of stolen works stolen by the Nazis, including the two pieces at SMU.
Documents from that process show the SMU Murillos were returned to the French government.
What's missing in the paper trail are documents proving the French returned the works to the family before Meadows bought them.
"Some governments didn't try very hard, or didn't have the resources to get all these works back, and later on may have sold these things; or they may be hanging in government buildings without them having been properly restituted," Edsel said.
Solving art mysteries is a painstaking process and can take years.
But both Edsel and SMU believe this mystery will be solved in the museum's favor.
For one thing, the Meadows has displayed the pieces around the world and published them in catalogs without anyone making a claim. They have also had success answering the same question about another painting in their collection — "Portrait of Queen Mariana" by Diego Velazquez.
After hearing from Edsel, SMU checked the backs of all the paintings in its collection and found that the Velazquez had also been stolen by Hitler — code R338, also stolen from the Rothschild family.
But in this case, a single piece of paper is the final piece of proof. Its receipt shows it was properly returned to the family before it was sold.
That chain is complete. That mystery is solved.
"We want to know as much as we can, is the bottom line,” Atzbach said.
Edsel also wants to know, and he wants all museums to follow SMU's lead: Pull every painting off every wall and answer every lingering question.
Only then can art lovers continue to right Hitler's wrongs.
SMU statement about ownership of Murilo paintings:
The Meadows Museum’s collection includes some of the most important works of art in the world, and we take questions of provenance very seriously. Research undertaken by the Meadows Museum of the two Murillo paintings, Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, is ongoing, and as such, it would be premature to speculate on the outcome of that research. Thus far, research by external researchers associated with both Mr. Edsel and SMU have determined that the paintings were most likely restituted. The Meadows Museum continues to conduct provenance research on these paintings and all of the works in its collections, both independently and in collaboration with consultants in London and Paris, SMU and the Meadows Museum are confident that we will find the last piece of the puzzle with regard to the provenance of these paintings.
The Meadows Museum follows the guidelines established by both the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) with regard to works of art that changed hands in Continental Europe between 1933 and 1945, as is the case with Santa Justa and Santa Rufina. In accordance with these guidelines, the Meadows Museum has already published the provenance of the two paintings on its Web site, as well as listing the works on the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (www.nepip.org), which is managed by the AAM.
In the 38 years these paintings by Murillo have been in the Meadows Collection, almost continuously on view, widely published and frequently featured in exhibitions in Europe and the United States, no claimant has come forward. In the event that a claimant should come forward, the Meadows Museum would recommend that SMU continue to follow the guidelines set forth by the AAM and the AAMD with regard to claims of ownership, which state that “If a museum determines that an object in its collection was unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era without subsequent restitution, the museum should seek to resolve the matter with the claimant in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner” (from the “American Association of Museums Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era”, 2001).