by Marc Masurovsky
[This is the third installment of the series on the alleged destruction of works of art at the Jeu de Paume in wartime Paris by agents of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).]
The Auxente/Pregel collection (tagged as AUX by the ERR) consisted largely of works of art produced by a Finnish-born Jewish artist named Alexandra Pregel whose parents were Russian and lived in Helsinki. Ms. Pregel and her parents moved to Paris to feel from Czarist Russia. There, she studied art and began to show her works as of 1932-3, according to Dr. Gauchman, one of the leading experts on Alexandra Pregel’s work. She worked with such luminaries of the exiled Russian avant-garde community as Natalia Gontcharova. Her father had been a minister in the short-lived Kerensky government in 1917-1918. In his honor, she signed her works as Avxente, a contracted form of her patronymic surname, Avkensetev. The Nazis mis-transcribed her name as Auxente, which explains why her confiscated works are inventoried under that name. She took the Pregel name after marrying Boris Pregel in 1937 in Paris. He was a scientist interested in radio-activity. After her marriage, she signed her watercolors and paintings as Pregel.
The Pregels fled to New York in 1940 in advance of the German invasion of Western Europe. Their apartment which also served as Alexandra’s studio at 18, rue Auguste Vacquerie, in the tony 16th arrondissement of Paris. At some point on or before April 2, 1942, the Pregel residence was visited by Nazi agents belonging to the Dienststelle Westen (DW), under Kurt von Behr’s leadership, an off-shoot of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the main plundering agency in territories occupied by the Nazis. The DW had been established in early 1942 for the specific purpose of emptying out Jewish-owned or controlled residences in the Paris region, and, subsidiarily, in Belgian cities, under the aegis of the so-called Möbel-Aktion.
After its seizure, the Auxente/Alexandra Pregel collection was brought to a Dienststelle Westen locale somewhere in Paris. 12 days later, on April 14, 1942, the collection was brought to the Jeu de Paume by two individuals, Mssrs. Mader and Fleischer. As far as we can tell, Herr Mader was the deputy chief of operations for the ERR in Belgium, while Herr Fleischer was the right- hand man and aide-de-camp of Bruno Lohse at the Jeu de Paume in German-occupied Paris. Mader’s involvement with the Auxente collection transfer from the Dienststelle Westen to the Jeu de Paume cannot be readily explained since his main theater of operations was occupied Belgium. But it attests to the intimate links between the French and Belgian operations of the ERR. However, Fleischer’s presence speaks to Bruno Lohse’s interest in the seizure of Pregel’s works, most probably because of her and her husband’s intimate ties to the Russian emigré avant-garde circles, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Paris.
Six months later, on September 14, 1942, Frau Tomforde, one of two ERR staff members assigned to the inventorying of so-called “objectionable” or “degenerate” works stockpiled at the Jeu de Paume/Louvre complex [see Destruction of works of art, Parts one and two], signed off on the inventory of the Auxente collection. Judging by the paucity and dearth of descriptive information for more than 300 works confiscated by Ms. Pregel—ostensibly, the entire content of her studio–, Ms. Tomforde spent very little time rummaging through the dozens of portfolios containing Pregel’s watercolors and other works on paper. All works by Pregel earned the “vernichtet” label. In other words, all were condemned to be destroyed. Considering the brief titles given by Tomforde to Pregel’s works—still life, woman in red, landscape, etc.–, the decision to purge Pregel’s oeuvre smacks of pure ideological dogma, rather than esthetic considerations. If anything, Pregel was a figurative artist. Her only sin was to be born Jewish with Russian roots.
|First page of ERR inventory for AUX.
Source: Bundesarchiv, B323/266
All told, the Auxente collection consisted of close to 370 objects—paintings, including stacks of rolled-up paintings that apparently were not even looked at during the inventorying process, watercolors and other works on paper. Thematically, we can deduce, based on the very terse one or two word descriptions, that they consisted largely of landscapes, portraits, interiors and still lives. Of the 370, 40 were relegated to the art market, leaving 330 condemned to the trash heap.
In sum, the purge of the Auxente/Pregel collection was near-total (90% of Pregel’s pre-war production). Oddly enough, the one work not signed by Pregel/Avxente/Auxente was a portrait of noted pacifist author, Blaise Cendrars, attributed to Modigliani (Aux 267). Why was it condemned? Not so much because a Jewish artist painted it but perhaps because of Cendrars’ politics.
To add insult to injury, not a single work was photographed.