Sometimes a thing’s value is in its story rather than the thing itself. That might be the case for a remarkable painting now at Binghamton University.
On a recent visit to a storage room behind the museum, called "The Vault," paintings both large and small covered the walls. There were shelves and cabinets obscuring the other side of the room, so the exact size of the room wasn't clear.
To the left was what looked like a big black window. Diane Butler of Binghamton University pointed to a large, dark painting of a religious man and two children.
“This is the work of an accomplished artist,” Butler said. “You can tell by the style: see the dark background, the religious subject.” She waved her hand to traces the figures to make the shape apparent. “See how you can see a triangle here and an inverted triangle? That’s very baroque.”
The painting is by 17th century Milanese artist Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, but that’s not the big mystery of this painting. The curious bit is the condition of the canvas when it was donated.
“It looked as though it had been folded up, which is something you never want to do with a painting,” Butler explained. “When we took it to the Westlake Conservation center in Skaneateles, they said, ‘Oh no, this painting hasn’t been folded, it’s been cut!’ So, if you think it’s a bad idea to fold a painting, it’s even worse to cut it!”
No cuts have been made through any detailed part of the painting, suggesting someone took great care to ensure the piece could be restored.
“My initial thought when looking at this was whoever cut this into six pieces would have been heartbroken doing it,” said Butler, “and the reason they cut it in to six pieces was to save it.”
But who, and why?
The only clue was the man who donated the painting to Binghamton University in 1982—Norbert Eisenstein.
The team investigating the painting found that Norbert was one of Max Eisenstein’s two sons. And Max had a massive art collection.
“Max Eisenstein owned not only this painting, many other paintings, a considerable art collection,” Butler said. "A very impressive coin collection in Vienna, Austria."
Vienna, Austria 1938
The Nazi bureaucracy was well established and anti-Semitism would have been widespread long before that. Max had actually converted to Catholicism, but to the Nazis, he was still Jewish.
If Jews were even allowed to leave Vienna at the time, they would be heavily taxed. So, Butler thinks the Eisenstein’s might have had to be a bit crafty to keep their possessions.
“I always, at first, described [them as] suitcase sized pieces,” Butler explains, "because it seemed this is a way to get a painting smuggled out.”
But a lawyer who often works on restitution cases involving Jewish owned art said a suitcase lining would have been one of the first places searched.
The university is still digging for the history of this painting. Max died two years before the painting was donated to the university, leaving a lot unknown. Max’s other son was named Bruno. His widow is in Arizona and well into her 90s. The team investigating the painting is hoping she’ll have another clue to this six-piece puzzle.
For now, the university is trying to decide how much work they want to do on it. They’ll clean it and do light fixes, but past that? They have already gotten an estimate to fill in the gaps from the cuts, and recreate the texture of the canvas and the color of the paint.
The person who cut this would likely want it restored. It’s a fine painting, but the story of the cuts in the canvas might be the real treasure.