Confiscaton of the art collections during communist years: between reality and myth

Valentina Iancu

Simona Vilau: Art Collecting in Romania

The decade 1938-1948 was probably the cloudiest in the history of Romania. In between the succession of four dictatorships and under war circumstances, the art collections began out of various reasons to deteriorate. If in the beginning the carlist dictatorship installed in 1930 encouraged the evolution of art and culture, the last years have culminated with the beginning of an anti-Semite legislative system, which announced the events of the holocaust period. Under this time, the collections possessed by Jews have disappeared, some of them without a trace.  Some other collections have vanished during the war, under the American, Russian (April 1944) and later on German (August 1944) bombardments, which also affected the private residences. Today, the blackest moment is considered to be the beginning of the communist era, a moment attributed to the nationalization and confiscation of important works of art, considered to be of national interest. Mihai Pelin, in the volume The Collapses’ Decade, consecrates one study to the phenomenon, suggestively named Collectors, from celebrity to clandestinity. The conclusion of this study raises a question mark regarding the general myth, very much circulated in autochthone press, regarding the massive confiscation of art collections commanded by the authorities of the communist state: “For many years, several paintings found in the private property of some collectors became practically inaccessible. The fear of confiscation thus imposed a quasi-secret existence. The human’s natural joy of elevating its quotidian environment has annexed itself a smothering clandestinity.”[12] Mihai Pelin’s conclusion synthetizes not only a complex but also a complicated situation. During the communist times there was no legislative framework which to create a foundation for the confiscations, and the nationalization never included works of art. “The party household”, a hybrid institution of the communist state, has brought into requisition pieces of art, which officially were only temporarily borrowed. There were also rumors about donations made under pressure, but this aspect still remains unclear for the Romanian historiography. Another contested aspect was the one of public acquisitions, whose commission was valuing the works of art much under their real value. There were though collections secretly built during communism. What this system has fundamentally changed, through repression and fear, was the mentality of the art collector.  Even though in the most retrospective exhibitions of important artists there have always been displayed works belonging to private collectors (Ion Chirichuţă, Sabina Florian, Ursula and Bucur Şchiopu, Rodica Ciocîrlel Teodorescu etc.), it is hard to identify what those collections actually consisted of or how they have been built. The collector, from an important pillar of art’s evolution and an active presence of the artistic environment, became an obscure passionate of art, about whom people knew less and less, year after year. The fear of confiscations and persecutions?  Indubitable is only that this suspicious attitude, this clandestinity imposed by communism, has remained an inheritance for the art collectors even after 1990.

A controversial faith was attributed to the popular collection of doctor Iosif N. Dona (1875-1956). One of the most important art collectors from the inter-war period, the doctor donated in 1950 to the Romanian state most of his collection, followed by other two donations in 1980 and 1989 conducted by his inheritors. The collection was one of the most bounded known collection, relevant both for the refinement of the doctor’s personal taste, and also for the artistic directions

of a whole époque. The doctor’s taste for art was educated within the family, his parents being amateurs of Romanian art. Dona started to collect works in 1902, when he acquired a painting signed by Nicolae Grigorescu, and 8 years later he self-defines himself as an art collector, starting to write down in a notebook all his acquisitions. The collector had the chance of inheriting within the family, from his aunt, Zettina Urechea, an important number of works, but he also took part at the most reputable auctions of the time: Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti, Eugeniu Carada and his bother-in-law’s, Alexandru Vlahuţă. At the end of the Second World War, the Dona collection was undoubtedly one of the most important collections from the capital. Under the communist era, the doctor and his inheritors have donated the collection to the state (in 1950, 1980 and 1989), the motives behind this choice remaining still unknown. The donations were later on the object of lengthy lawsuits, which have eventually conduced to the restitution of the collection to its by-law inheritors, followed by the dispersal of most of the works on autochthone art market through different auctions. The Dona case confirms the fact that during the communist period methods of confiscation existed, which proves useful for determining donations which still remain completely unknown.

In 1978 a part of the collections gathered in Romania and officially donated to the state, have been for the first time exhibited together, though the establishment of Romanit Palace and Art Collections Museum, by valuing the idea of art collecting and its significance in the history of arts. This institution has the merit of reminding the role of the art collectors in the emergence of arts within the Romania, where, until very late, they were the only source of income for the artists.

[12] Mihai Pelin, The Collapses‘ Decade (1940-1950). The lives of Romanian painters, sculptures and architects, between legionaries and Stalinists, Compania Publishing, Bucharest, 2005, p. 502