It’s all so hopeless giving back artworks

Art historian László Mravik on the problems of restitution

MúzeumCafé 36.

László Mravik has not pursued the traditional career of an art historian, although he started out as a researcher of Renaissance painting and was accepted by and worked with expert scholars at university and in his first job at the Museum of Fine Arts. Then he took up employment offered by the ministry and spent the following years organising matters concerning museums while continuing with similar activity, but in the Party centre. Perhaps that was a pity for such a proficient researcher, yet he did not neglect his research. In fact, he has certainly become the most accomplished expert in the history of art collecting in Hungary. His name has been linked to this field and that – as he would put it – is what has ruined him. He has curated several exhibitions connected to the theme and is the author of Sacco di Budapest, which analyses the fate of artworks taken from Hungary. Perhaps it is the most shocking specialized book about art ever published. Besides contributions to catalogues and journals, for many years he has been writing the history of art collecting, which is as much linked to political literature and crime stories as to the arts. Yet he hasn’t finished the volume and due to the continuously increasing new data and other reasons we only can keep our fingers crossed and hope that one day it will be published. Up to now just the tip of the iceberg is known – he has published only a fragment of the data he knows. How much remains is his secret, at least for the time being.


– What made you decide to become an art historian?

My family loved art and there were a lot of books at home. I did well at primary school, so they overlooked my mischief, although I’m rather ashamed of what I did when I was a pupil. Later, since I had an eye for a career in architecture I finished a secondary technical school for the construction industry, thinking you never know what the future brings. Yet I saw that unless you got a job with Iparterv you had no chance of creating something significant, and the plans for large investments were already completed at the beginning of the 60s. I loved art a lot and read much, and over time I realized I had to do more with that. At the entrance exams I turned out to have a great advantage, having read a lot compared to the other applicants. I had no doubt that I had to continue in the Museum of Fine Arts.


– Because you were involved with old masters from the beginning.

Yes, although I don’t feel far from modern art, either. Something also stimulated me. I frequently went to the library of the Fine Arts Museum because it was the best stocked and most easily accessible art library. From there I sometimes walked over to the museum and once I sat down in a room and sensed the scent of old paintings, the incomparable mixture of the smell of poplar that was used as the basis, the resin and the varnish. It intoxicated me and from then on there was no stopping.


– The research field of Klára Garas, director of the Fine Arts Museum, was similar to yours. What was she like as a director and a colleague?

She is an incredible figure in the profession. You can only look up to her. It is quite unfortunate that she didn’t want to teach at the university, although she was persuaded to do so. She worked as a director at the secretariat from 8.30 to 9.30 in the morning, received members of the staff, then withdrew to her table at the rear end of the library and began research. You couldn’t disturb her with matters concerning the museum. Then there were Dénes Radocsay, István Genthon and János György Szilágyi, who is still with us with all his mental alertness. When I started at the museum he was in America with a Ford scholarship, so I met him only half a year later. At the time Jolán Balogh, Andor Pigler and Dénes Pataky still worked there. They had no professional jealousy of a young colleague and they gave enormous help. There was a marvellous group comprising Genthon, Radocsay, Dénes Pataky and Jenő Barcsay who had lunch in the small Gundel behind the museum every day. After some time – I still don’t see why – they accepted me. Then the number slowly diminished. Radocsay went over to work for the Museum of Applied Arts and it would have been to difficult to attend from there. Pataky slowly stayed away and Genthon unfortunately died. In the end Barcsay and I remained. He told me a lot about his views on modern art. He drew my attention to matters and contemporary artists, of course only foreign, who I had had no idea about earlier. After lunch I always accompanied him to where he lived. He talked about purely positive things in the restaurant and always moaned on the way home. He sometimes got on the underground and went to the College of Art, which he always called the “Academy”. And it truly was an academy.


– Why did you opt for management and politics?

Straightforward politics has never interested me. Several people retired at the same time from the Department of Museums in the Ministry of Culture and Education. The head of the department, Antal Gönyei, decided to employ a professional for each field, an ethnographer for ethnography, an archaeologist for archaeology. The word got around that there was someone at the Museum of Fine Arts who was always on the lookout for something – it was me. I left in 1977 after I had worked in the museum for ten years. I thoroughly enjoyed the time, I spent a total of 15 years in two of my alma maters, but the new task interested me. In the ministry I turned out to be good at management. Of the national museums I oversaw three arts museums, but the department also had some supervision over county museums, involving the so-called right of sectoral supervision. I think we could cooperate and at most we had a say when something seemed very problematic. I had a colleague, the historian and archaeologist István Éri, who was in charge of the Museum Restoration and Methodology Centre. The ‘Regions, Ages, Museums’ movement was his idea and even today I regard it one of Hungary’s best educational institutions. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited museums for pennies.


– Everyone collected stamps in their booklets.

We tried to keep the prices as low as possible. At the time a family had already been affected by the ticket prices for the Opera House, but we wanted them to get to museums with far less sacrifice. Since then this has also ceased, but at the time we were able to maintain an acceptable price level. Statistics are said to be manipulated. 13-15 million visitors a year is plenty, but really many people visited museums then, that’s sure. It’s a great pity today that someone who is poor cannot afford to go to museums. I worked in the ministry until 1982 and I wanted to return to the museum very much.


– Did you miss research and the scent that drove you to that career?

Actually, I did research all along while I was in the ministry. I spent eight hours in the job. I spent another eight hours on research and I hardly slept for four. That was when I began dealing with what in the end caused my ruin – the history of art collecting. It was Klára Garas who arose my interest, but she was involved in universal art collection and I thought that the Hungarian side should also be researched. It was a bit of a taboo at the time, but I began attending libraries and archives, some of which were open until 8 or 9 p.m.


– Was the research connected with the exhibition Private Collections in Hungary – a Se-lection staged in the Hungarian National Gallery in 1981?

Absolutely. By then I had already amassed quite a lot of data and that was when Kati Sinkó moved from BÁV, the State Art Dealer, to the National Gallery. Due to her previous job she had access to collections which I could not have ever seen as someone employed by a museum or the ministry, since these two represented the main enemies for collectors. This goes back to when many people were forced to move to the countryside. At that time museums were compelled to remove artworks from collectors’ homes. Museum employees often had no idea whose apartments they had entered and they felt disheartened since they knew that this was the time when they became enemies for the collectors. They did it on orders and were managed by the state security police. There was much junk among the works removed and they were difficult to store, list and transport. Much was also lost at that time. It all happened under incredibly bad storage conditions and it gave museums a bad reputation for a long time. My head of department at the ministry was Tibor Kovács, who not only didn’t forbid but actually encouraged research. You could never know when you went back to work in a museum. Yet on Aczél’s instruction I went over to work for Mihály Kornidesz, who was in charge of the cultural department in the Party centre. Since Lóránd Bereczky went to the National Gallery at the time and they needed someone who was competent in the arts, I was redirected to the Party centre. I was not even given time to think. I had to deal with contemporary art, all the public collections and music, because no one else was doing it. A post like that was given as a Party task. You could refuse, but you didn’t know whether that was best or not. The task attracted me because I thought things could perhaps improve. In 1982 the then existing socialism was already crumbling a bit. I planned to try to behave neutrally from a political point of view and press ahead with improving infrastructure and objective conditions.


– Let us return to the exhibition in 1981. Could a similar display be staged today? A large part of the classic works may already be in museums and I wonder whether museums have a precise list of collectors and collections.

Many of the modern works are also in museums. The lists can be found not with the museums but with centralised institutions, which is not necessary a good idea because no one has sufficient authority. Yet there is a great deal at stake. It is such a plundered country that every piece matters.


– How did collectors react to being asked?

Absolutely positively. Of course we also had some role in that. I courted them and everyone knew Kati who had always informed them if an artwork that interested them had come into the State Art Dealer’s. I sent them a letter in advance. The doors were open to us and they showed many items that were not included in any files. Many of the collectors at the time were already professionals, thus they regarded us as partners. I pledged my word that I would not tell anyone, which of course made me violate the rules, but I thought it was better if I saw what treasures those collections contained. Then the secret closets opened and such art objects of silver which were thought to be lost suddenly appeared that I almost fainted. Pieces made by Sebestyén Hahn, old Meissen porcelain and paintings emerged from back rooms. These were the hard moments of the work. In the long run, however, we did well because in time those objects could be slowly drawn forth and museums could purchase them. Later the owners understood that the artworks should be in museums, and furthermore they were paid a high price for them.


– You published a summary of this exhibition in Új Művészet far later, immediately after the political changes. Why did you find it necessary?

Inquiries into the war booty made me survey the worth of what has remained in Hungary. Then you can imagine how much the best that was taken could be worth. Besides, there was a peculiar atmosphere in the air, implying the country should accumulate hard currency from the sale of art treasures. I wanted to prove with the figures I published that although it would be a considerable sum it would not pull the country out of trouble.


– When did you start dealing with the problem of removed works?

I worked again in a museum, the Hungarian National Gallery, in 1988. But it was still back in the Party centre that I started the research. I tried to document the history of Hungarian art collecting and I didn’t find any trace of a large number of things. It was possible to get information about what had been taken to the West, but that was only a small amount compared to what was missing. The propaganda always blamed the Nazis, the Arrow Cross and the Americans. I knew that it was easiest to have access to the Jewish estates and I incessantly tried to look for them with the Germans. The records of the Jewish government commission survived and what they sequestered did not disappear. Dénes Csánky was attributed with guilt, whereas his proposal to deposit the artworks with the Museum of Fine Arts really meant protection. In addition, he gave it in writing that everything would be returned. The rest presented a question. When in 1991 the previously secret bank records could be researched I quickly got down to them and I did well because around 1994 access began to be restricted again. Initially things went OK, since both József Antall and Yeltsin were into clearing up matters. But behind the politicians there is always a strongly nationalist cultural lobby which opposes that.


– How did you feel about entering the storerooms in Moscow?

We knew that they presented a small fraction of what had been taken, but that was all we were allowed to look at. So if we had been able to bring them they would have all been returned to their owners. To that many people would question what the point was. But they do not consider that the country would increase its wealth with them, not to mention that many of those works would have certainly ended up in museums.


– A good decade ago I asked Lóránd Bereczky, the then director of the National Gallery, what would happen if the Russians suddenly decided to return everything. His answer was chaos, because the ownership of each work would have to be authenticated individually and the number of descendants was huge.

I talked quite a lot about it with him. I think it would require the work of two experts. Forgetting political considerations, the law should prevail and that stipulates everything clearly. If the owner cannot be found, the Hungarian state is the natural owner as is the Jewish religious community in the case of Jewish ownership.


– How was the Committee of Restitution set up?

It was set up by József Antall in 1992. I wrote a letter to him as to a former colleague and he arranged it all within a few weeks. Then the organisation became larger and later it had some 60 members. Altogether 3-4 people including me constituted a research team, which reported to the committee. We researched very enthusiastically, but by around 1996-97 I could already see that nothing would become of it during my professional career. Some resolution must be found sooner or later because what the Russians did lack even a nodding acquaintance with any international agreements. Hungary paid so much for the Sárospatak library that the works could have been bought in second-hand bookshops in Amsterdam for one third of the price. Just think about it, way back I was able to argue with Aczél or Pozsgai with no consequences. Such a disagreement today would be fatal. Perhaps as a result of free elections, today the power and authority of leaders is unquestionable.


– You have mentioned that this research has ruined you. What do you mean?

I was branded and labelled, for example regarding who I was working for, but that was the least. Then they tried to keep me away from research by accusing me of having stolen documents, saying that my signature was on the papers. But it can’t have been since I never did research in that archive.


– You have written the history of Hungarian art collecting, but since it is unpublished we cannot read it. How many years does it span?

I’ve tried to begin from the beginning, from the time when it can be presumed that the owner acquired an object for its artistic value, as did treasuries and royal collections. I’ve included libraries because they also represent art collections. I try to get up to the present day.


– You have an essay on this subject in the volume about the Hungarian National Gallery’s exhibition catalogue.

Yes, but I’ve got tired of it. Although since my latest version I’ve acquired an enormous amount of unexplored source material that puts the matter in a completely different light, I haven’t dared to even think. Information has mainly come from abroad. We did not have a clue earlier that such works were in Hungary, because when it turns out that works moved around during the war everyone begins to lie. Facing up to the past and to conscience is an interesting matter. In some countries everything is returned quickly and without complaint, but in Hungary that is the reason why they are trying to hush it up. It is known that there were not many more terrible things in history than the Hungarian Holocaust, but it is understandable that nobody would like to put forward their name and be responsible for giving up masterpieces from the museums. In a US court, special regard is given to someone who had been persecuted. If a verdict is reached in favour of the person, the United States has all the means to enforce the decision. But Hungary hasn’t got the means to enforce claims against Russia. The whole business is hopeless. Why should I worry? I do, but not so much now. Fortunately, time goes by and you reach an age when you prove to be more understanding about the frailties of the world.