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The Thyssen Art Macabre

by Angus Trumble, 28 September 2018

Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and David R. L. Litchfield at Villa Favorita, Lugano, Switzerland, 1989 © Nicola Graydo
Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and David R. L. Litchfield at Villa Favorita, Lugano, Switzerland, 1989 © Nicola Graydo

Books seldom make me angry but this one did. At first, I was powerfully struck by the uncanny parallels that existed between the Mellons of Pittsburgh and the Thyssens of the Ruhr through the same period, essentially the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But that is where the resemblance ends. Upon re-reading this piece just now, which was first published in The Times Literary Supplement (with a few irritating edits that I take the liberty, here, of reversing), I’m really struck by a strength of tone, notes even of indignation, that feel most unfamiliar to me. I’m a pretty equable sort of bloke. Nevertheless, the sharp tone of this piece was genuine and I’m proud of it.

The Thyssen Art Macabre
David R. L. Litchfield
in collaboration with Caroline Schmitz
Quartet Books, 2006

Beginning in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, in a province about to be transformed by heavy industry, with shrewd talent for business and sheer hard work, the sons of the sober proprietor of a minor local bank devote their life to building a huge industrial conglomerate. Buoyed by an unlimited international demand for coal and steel, and by the absence up to a certain point of income, company or wealth tax or planning regulations of any kind or effectively unionized labour; supported by equally ambitious joint-venturers; barely interrupted by the slump of the 1890s—and not even particularly incommoded by the First World War, on the contrary: it was great for the banking and steel branches of the family business—the mesh of intertwining companies they create generates profit on a scale hitherto unknown, such that the shareholders’ vast wealth is almost impossible to calculate. Their banking, steel, coal, gas, oil and transport interests continually refinance and stoke one another, bringing about unstoppable expansion, causing the whole region to become one of the industrial power-houses of the continent.

One brother, short, thin-voiced, frugal in his personal life, emerges early as the dominant personality; his knowledge of and hold over the concern is total. His marriage collapses, at a time when divorce was wholly scandalous. In old age, he becomes interested in art. Dutch paintings hang in the small, but comfortable apartment they keep in the nation’s capital; a large but cold principal residence remains within walking distance of the office, not far from belching factories. His handsome, well-educated son and heir inherits his interest in fine art, but disappoints the father by not inheriting his single-minded passion for business above all else. After the old man dies, universally regarded as one of the greatest industrialists of the age, the son’s art collecting activities accelerate and become exceedingly ambitious. He also is finally able to indulge his passion for bloodstock, partly freed from his remote, self-disciplined father’s disapproval.

In these respects, the remarkable lives led on either side of the Atlantic by Andrew W. Mellon of Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania, and August Thyssen of the Ruhr, their fathers, their sons, and the progress of the great industrial conglomerates they and their brothers together created—and to a lesser degree the formation of the art collections that were built with the dividends—run eerily parallel, and suggest that with a bit of luck for the capable, singleminded man of business in the fifty years between 1870 and 1920 anything was possible. This, however, is where the resemblances end.

As Sir David Cannadine has shown in his magisterial 2006 study Mellon: An American Life (Knopf), Andrew Mellon’s life was big in precisely the ways that August Thyssen’s was small. Beyond the vast enterprise which he continued to run till the end of his life, it was said of Mellon that he was the most distinguished, certainly the longest-lasting, Secretary of the Treasury under whom three presidents of the United States had yet served: Warren G. Harding, J. Calvin Coolidge, Jr., and Herbert C. Hoover. Thyssen showed no interest in public office, indeed at his birth the unified Germany from which his family would in future extract such dizzying wealth did not yet exist, and it remained for him merely a marketing opportunity; nobody could have hoped for a better customer than the Kaiser. Near the end of his life, on New Year’s Eve 1936, Mellon presented to the nation the core collection of Old Master paintings and a great building on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to house a projected National Gallery of Art, an act of astounding generosity given that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had done his very best to bring Mellon down; Thyssen’s philanthropies were meagre.

Mellon was slight, and well-dressed; Thyssen was nuggety and more at home at the pit. Mellon was scrupulous in paying his taxes; Thyssen and his heirs and their lawyers did their best to avoid them. By his hold over the Pennsylvanian Republican Party machine Mellon engineered state legislation by which he minimized the damage brought about by his divorce in 1912; Thyssen’s 1885 divorce nearly wrecked the company, because Frau Thyssen’s family had put up the capital for the first iron smelting and rolling mill. Where possible Mellon, a Scots Presbyterian, avoided hiring catholics; Thyssen was catholic, but determinedly anti-Semitic, his children more so.

Andrew Mellon’s greatest art coup—a reflection of his characteristically brilliant business philosophy in that he took advantage of never-to-be-repeated opportunities and bought in for the lowest possible price—was the secret acquisition through Knoedler in 1930–31 of major pictures in the Hermitage from a Soviet government desperate for hard currency. The central episode of August Thyssen’s far more limited art collecting life was the highly public, excruciatingly slow purchase of six marbles by Auguste Rodin for 145,000 francs spread over the years 1905–11, during which time he haggled pettily with the sculptor’s secretary, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, going as far as to seek a hefty, contractually enforceable discount in case Rodin died before the sculptures were complete.

The Death of Athens (Lamentation on the Acropolis), 1904 - 1906 by Auguste Rodin

Mellon’s son, the late Paul Mellon, fought in the U.S. cavalry during the Second World War, studied Jung, bred champion racehorses, and dedicated the rest of his life to philanthropy on a scale rarely if ever matched in the United States of America. Courtesy of an absurdly late decree of the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, August Thyssen’s son Heinrich bought into the Hungarian aristocracy and, as Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszón, assisted his father to profit from the production of steel and electricity during World War I. With barely concealed distaste, Thyssen père’s 1925 obituarist in The Times remarked that “during the Great War the firm of Thyssen was exceedingly busy, and prospered greatly.” Heinrich and his brothers underwrote the Nazis. They exploited forced labour; acquired confiscated Jewish racing stables, and, when the Second World War got sticky, escaped to Switzerland.

Thereafter, as far as possible the family hid behind fake Hungarian nationality, Dutch and Argentine residency, and, later, Swiss citizenship, while Baron Heinrich continued to maintain a permanent suite at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Assets were routinely hidden off-shore, funds at first poured to the Netherlands for safekeeping, and through the Union Banking Corporation of New York to South America. (The Union Bank was incorporated in the state of New York in 1924 with the assistance of the railroad magnate W. Averell Harriman, a future Secretary of Commerce under President Truman, and on its board sat the future Senator Prescott S. Bush, grandfather of President George W. Bush.) Well ahead of D-Day, assets and share certificates were rushed from Rotterdam back to Berlin, again for safekeeping. With the aid of the Allied occupying forces, Thyssen industries in the Ruhr were permitted to re-start almost immediately, occasionally at a few undamaged plants without losing more than a single day of production; assets were easily salvaged; incriminating documents illegally removed from Germany back to Holland under Russian noses, then destroyed.

David R. L. Litchfield’s somewhat breathless, bafflingly entitled The Thyssen Art Macabre is not nearly as thorough, interesting or as measured as Cannadine’s Mellon, but at least it brings out the cynicism, and the vast scale of duplicity with which the Thyssen family’s third industrial and banking billionaire, Heinrich’s alcoholic son and heir Hans Heinrich (“Heini”), carried forward the Konzern in the decades following the Second World War, and the extraordinary degree to which the Allies and, perhaps worse, the Swiss, who knew exactly what was going on, found it curiously difficult or impolitic even adequately to investigate, much less pin more than a few charges on the Barons Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszón.

Why were the Thyssens’ pre-war gold deposits in London never confiscated? And why were they eventually returned, incidentally, at Harold Macmillan’s urging, when military intelligence and the Foreign Office certainly knew how thoroughly they had been mixed up in the Nazi regime? It would be interesting to learn how much Commerce Secretary Harriman and Senator Bush knew about the financial services provided for years to the Thyssen businesses and through them, let us hope unwittingly, to the Nazis, via the Manhattan boardroom of the Union Bank. Why also did a single truck laden with share certificates, safety deposit boxes and other valuables manage to find its way unmolested from the Russian sector of Berlin all the way across Europe to Rotterdam—making the trek for the second time—thus partly shoring up Thyssen banking interests, a daring coup that was referred to as “Operation Juliana” (presumably because Queen Wilhelmina’s own Thyssen share certificates were on this occasion rescued)?

More perplexing even than these is the question: Why during the war did thousands of loyal, hard-working German lawyers, company directors, middle managers, and other employees all the way down to factory foremen risk life and limb to protect the assets of the Konzern from the Americans, British, and French, then the Russians, when their proprietors—who by their status as a wholly-owned private family company were relieved of the basic obligation even to publish a simple balance sheet—reclined in comfort in the Villa Favorita on the shore of Lake Lugano, surrounded by Baron Heinrich’s conveniently portable art collection, which he regarded with total frankness as an excellent way of disguising his wealth from the tax authorities?

Baron and Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza pose on the terrace of Villa Favorita with Picasso's 1923 "Harlequin with a Mirror"

In fact, Uncle Fritz was charged as a “major offender” in 1948 before the De-Nazification Court at Königstein, having published in 1939 an ill-judged but cheerful book entitled I Paid Hitler, in which he boasted about financing the Putsch of November 9, 1923. He retired to Argentina. But big brother Stephan, who worked on the V–2 rocket project and shot his girlfriend in Hungary, lived unmolested in Monte Carlo, producing a bizarre tract entitled The Explanation of Life which carries a somewhat embarrassing dedication to Max Planck. Meanwhile, big sister Margit and her husband, Count Batthyány de Németujvár, who together ran a stud farm throughout the war at the huge, depressing Bornemisza castle of Rohoncz, by then in Austrian territory, shared the premises with the SS. In March 1945 they turned a blind eye to an appalling massacre in the castle grounds of 200 Hungarian Jews, then calmly packed their bags, got in the car and, in the path of the Red Army, drove unimpeded all the way across Austria and trundled safely over the Swiss frontier.

There, with two other disgruntled siblings, they contested Baron Heinrich’s horribly inequitable will, which cursed his four children with just about the most corrosive division of assets as it is possible for a parent to devise: ⅛, ⅛, ⅛, ⅝, giving total control to the youngest, Heini, who, aged twenty, at the height of the War, had amused himself with an Argentine lover: “I am trying to find out what it is I like so much in you,” he wrote to her, charmingly, “the sensual mouth, the wolf’s teeth, the laughing eyes…”) The Thyssens make the House of Atreus feel cosy.

How much of this is true? Certainly the meticulously archived German paper mountain, which has proven so valuable to Nazi-hunters and later researchers of every description, amply suggests that the big picture is correct, even if numerous points of detail are difficult, if not impossible to prove. If, on the other hand, you cannot be sure about the small things, how reliable are the big ones? Litchfield was initially commissioned by Heini and his fifth wife to produce a friendly account of the Thyssen dynasty, largely to contradict the lies they claimed had been spread by the previous four. One can easily see how difficult that task must have been, enjoyable though it was, no doubt, to act for a time as Heini’s confessor.

Not surprisingly that book foundered. This one is unfriendly, but contains enough evidence to persuade one that the hatchet was carefully sharpened beforehand and possibly even deliberately presented to the author by its own subject. One of the most chilling photographic reproductions in the book shows a certificate dated 4 June 1941 in which Judge John P. Nields of the United States District Court states that Baron Heinrich’s ghastly Bornemisza mother-in-law (née Matilda Louisa Price of Wilmington, Delaware) “has no trace of Jewish blood in her veins.”

Above all, the discussion of Baron Heinrich and his youngest son’s scattergun art collecting activities, which drags the reader kicking, if not screaming, through a series of ownership disputes and legal settlements among heirs and ex-wives, fails to persuade one that the purchase for (in theory) $600 million in 1993 by the Spanish government of one half of the collection was more than a shabby fire sale. The claim that it was intended to complement the holdings of the Prado, one of the greatest art museums in the world, is plucky, certainly, but by any measure insulting.

Unfortunately Litchfield does little more than pour scorn on Baron Heinrich’s “generally appalling collection of over-restored paintings, many of which suffered from questionable provenance and very few of which were masterpieces.” Accounting for crucial role of the Thyssens’ principal adviser, the dealer Rudolf Heinemann, and his association with Bernard Berenson, Max Friedländer and others is inadequate. For example, the author claims, weirdly, that Berenson “introduced such phrases as ‘the work of an anonymous German master’, ‘attributed to’ and ‘from the studio of’,” as if these were in any case inherently deceptive, while unusual early acquisitions of rare fifteenth-century Netherlandish and German paintings are dismissed as “inconsequential” merely because no firm attribution can be made. It is all very unfortunate.

But what Litchfield’s cursory tour d’horizon makes clear is that a fearfully lowering black cloud hangs over many Thyssen paintings which lack documented provenance in the Nazi period. This ought to be a matter of grave concern for their present owners, as it is for the rest of us who routinely face this moral problem. Ironically, in this context, just when Heini thought that by investing in German Expressionism and other twentieth-century masterpieces, which Baron Heinrich shunned at around the time much of it was despised as entartete, he was making the right sort of gesture—and looking back from today’s date, for the prices he paid, a series of dazzlingly good investments as well—he may merely have compounded the larger evil created by the orchestrated Nazi spoliation of cultural property.

He was certainly aware of the problem. In 1972 Heini was charged with smuggling by the Italian authorities in relation his purchase through Arturo Grassi of the exquisite Sienese Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist by Ugolino di Nerio (now in Madrid) and the not quite as good Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Catherine by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (now in the Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Pedralbes). With supreme arrogance, Heini told the New York Times: “I buy the stuff in Switzerland and the United States, but how it gets there I don’t know. I can’t check all that.” It seems the case was suspended. In fact, the paintings were illegally exported from Italy prior to the sale, and it is now left for someone else to check all that for him.