The "incomparable" ivory Bury St. Edmunds Cross at the Cloisters. Who made it? Why? Who found it? Where? Could it be Holocaust art?
New York's art institutions have accumulated millions of works of art, which encompass the entire history of art from Paleolithic times to now. Most of the stuff is fine, but definitely not world-class; good enough yet by no means unique examples of the culture they represent.
Yet, a handful of the multi-million objects are true masterpieces, works that have no equal anywhere on earth. These are the art super-gems. They possess marks of uncommon genius; artistically they will live forever. They have the power to change your life from the moment you first encounter them addict you for life.
One of New York's super-gems is arguably the 12th century ivory cross in the Cloisters -- carved in walrus ivory and apparently commissioned in 1148 at the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. In its time, when comments about art and artists were sparse, a Bury cross was singled out for having been "incomparably carved." If this cross and the one at the Cloisters is the same, the praise is accurate -- the sheer technical pyrotechnics evident of it is mind-boggling. Made from three heavy pieces -- two verticals and a horizontal -- it is held together firmly by an ingenious tongue-and-groove system carved into the ivory which fasten the three sections together tightly without pegs. That alone is incomparable.
Yet the grandeur of the work goes far beyond sheer technical mastery. Its creator, Master Hugo, who made a body of exceptional works of art for the English Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, acquired some 350-year-old golden yellow walrus tusks and carved them into a lavishly decorated and densely inscribed cross with multiple scenes of the Passion, a host of prophets, a dramatic figure of Christ portrayed at the exact moment of his death (this still exists but in Oslo) and flanking figures of a weeping Mary and St. John, which are still missing. The cross is by far the most ornate to have survived from the Middle Ages.
Michelangelo, for his David, is said to have used a block of marble rejected by an earlier sculptor because of a flaw that if penetrated might burst the marble asunder. Undeterred, Michelangelo cut right into the stone, worked around the flaw and produced his divine David.
Master Hugo worked around multiple flaws throughout the seventh century walrus tusks. Even fresh walrus ivory is known for its tendency to flake and rupture when cut into deeply, yet the skillful Hugo carved, in daringly deep undercutting, over 50 tiny human and animal figures in the ancient tusks. Many figures are only a half an inch in size but he carved the tiniest details of anatomy.
The figures are singularly dramatic for their time. They lunge and twist. They strut and posture. They communicate with each with expressive body language. Nothing in England or on the Continent comes close to the power, drama and beauty of the Cloisters ivory cross. It is the finest, most monumental, sensitive and artistically revolutionary work of art of the entire Romanesque period.
Its message, however, is far from beautiful. Imparted by two large inscriptions on the front and sides and by dozens of inscribed scrolls held by the figures, this message is complex and threatening. It is one of the most vicious anti-Jewish diatribes in medieval history. It's almost as if Hitler had collaborated with Michelangelo on a work of art.
I first heard of the now famous Bury St. Edmunds cross -- now, sad to say, ineptly displayed, in the Cloisters Treasury -- as "one of the best or worst forgeries on earth." It was back in 1961, months after I'd joined the museum. A former Cloisters curator told me about it and deemed it to be a fake because the inscription on the placard over the head of Christ is NOT the time-honored "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," but the never-before-seen-on-any-work-of-art "King of the Confessors."
It didn't take me long to realize this curator was wrong. Forgers don't change the rules. No faker would alter the time-honored Biblical text. So, convinced of its authenticity, I became obsessed with the cross and pursued it for more than three years, struggling to acquire it for the museum.
I had to fight on several fronts. I had to persuade my reluctant boss and the Met's trustees to spend what in 1963 was the astronomical price of $600,000 (ample funds existed) for a medieval cross with no known provenance, owned by a man of intense mystery. I had to fend off a determined competition, which also raised the money -- the British Museum. I had to conceal some nasty stuff I'd learned about the owner. And I also had to suppress its ugly message.
Long after my struggles were over and I had left the Met, I wrote a book about my experiences in buying the Bury cross for the Cloisters. The book, published by Simon and Schuster in 1981, is entitled King of The Confessors. A bunch of scholars and book critics published countless articles and one hefty book criticizing, mulling over and nitpicking my theories, sometimes agreeing and praising me, more often disagreeing and slamming me.
King of The Confessors has long been out of print. In the past 20 years, I have unearthed a body of information and gained insights about the object, its former owner, and what the British Museum did and didn't do. I have even reassessed my own over-the-top actions in chasing after the thing. So, I have rewritten King of The Confessors. It is being published this month on the Internet and in the fall in a print version. (See below for a link to the Internet publishing house, Cybereditions.com, for info on how to order the book.)
Had I learned what I now know about the owner of the cross when I was charging after it and had let anyone in the Met know, the purchase would have been squashed.
The vendor, Ante Topic Mimara Matutin, was initially described to me back in 1961 blandly as "a Yugoslav by birth, Austrian by citizenship, who lives in the Freeport of Tangiers, Morocco, and keeps his stuff in a bank vault in Zurich." He was said to be a reputable art dealer whose personal collection of works, ranging from ancient Egypt through medieval treasures, Old Masters to Impressionists, numbered in the thousands.
It was a lie. I now know that Topic Mimara (Mirko Maratovic Matutin Mate Topic Count de Ina) was a scam artist, art thief, art forger, a master spy for Tito, a KGB agent and perhaps a killer.
In my 1981 book I revealed a smidgeon of his crookedness, mentioning in passing how he'd made off with hundreds of art treasures from what was called the Collecting Point established in Munich after the fall of the Third Reich. This central deposit contained hundreds of thousands of works of art stolen primarily from Jewish collectors by the Nazis. They were all awaiting any information that might enable the authorities to send them back to their legitimate owners. I thought this was Topic's only crime. How wrong I was!
Late last year I got the chance to learn the full extent of his sins, when, out of the blue, a Yugoslavian journalist, Milomir Maric, contacted me. He'd read my book. He'd been tracking Topic Mimara for years, had interviewed him on camera, and had extracted from him some confessions. Very generously he gave me everything he'd found about Topic, the "Professor Moriarty" of the art world. I have put that rich (and almost unbelievable) material in the new edition of King of The Confessors.
Mimara's dossier reads like a combination of clown, sociopath, and failed art genius.
He was born in Spalato (Split) on Apr. 7, 1898, the son of a serving girl and an unknown father. His mother abandoned him on the steps of a local hospital and he was given the name Mirko Maratovic. His nickname Mimara came from Mi(rko) Mara(tovic.)
Mimara never regularly attended school. In 1914 he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. There he learned how to read and write. From private he rose to the rank of junior sergeant, an astonishing precipitous rise for someone born so low in those class-conscious times.
One of his fellow soldiers was a certain Ante Topic and Mimara is suspected of killing him during a military engagement in 1918 in order to use his name. For the rest of his life, he avoided any contact with the Topic family and waited for the right moment to use his secret identity.
In 1919 Mimara married. He had two sons who've vanished and a daughter named Paulina who's still living in Rome. After a year he divorced and opened a store in Spalato specializing, as a local paper describes, in "fancy goods, retail and special trade -- bijouterie, shoelaces, necklaces, earrings, etc."
Mimara had made a striking impression on many citizens in Spalato for spending hours in the city library poring over art books. He boasted that he'd made lists of all the art museums and auction houses in Europe and had become friends with all local museum curators who taught him everything they knew. He also claimed he'd become a restorer.
Coincidentally with Topic's devoted interest in art, in the early 1920s a large number of paintings and icons were stolen from modest Yugoslavian churches. After the crime wave was over -- no one was charged -- Mimara just happened to begin writing letters to art dealers and auction houses in Vienna, Paris, Rome and Amsterdam offering hitherto unknown works by masters like Titian, Rubens and Giotto. He seldom sold anything -- the shabby works were not what he said. Yet, Topic insisted they were great and explained that only he recognized in the dusty, old paintings creations of exalted masters. This was to become his life's chorus.
In the early 1920s, because of his fascination in collecting aliases, Mimara convinced a respected Spalato citizen that he was the only son of the man's late sister. He'd spotted a personal ad in a local newspaper seeking her heirs. Mimara forged a birth certificate with the family's name. With it he extracted a considerable sum from the woman's estate.
A year later when this birth certificate was judged fake, the earlier decisions were annulled, and he was ordered to repay the estate.
Mimara split for Sarajevo. Before leaving his shop, the story goes, he positioned lighted candles on the edge of tables and chairs. Some candles tipped over and the place burned down. Confidently, he sought the sizeable payment on a policy he'd bought only a week before the fire. Although he had an alibi -- he was on a train at the time of the conflagration -- a prosecutor indicted him for arson and fraud.
Mimara split again. His last words, recorded in a local newspaper, were that Spalato had become "too small" for him.
On the run in Dalmatia in 1925 he met an aging Italian Countess, Edina Pjelik de Ina. Mimara, 40 years her junior, first became her lover and then was adopted by the aristocrat.
As the Count de Ina, Mimara lived high on the hog, principally in Vienna where he rented a palatial suite at the old Hotel Post. He passed himself off as a major dealer in antiques and art -- "specializing in art from the Balkans." His inventory consisted of copies and fakes he made himself. He also hired fakers to make others. Mimara had accumulated a sizeable collection of photographs of authentic works of art, which he gave to his hired forgers as models.
One goldsmith in Zagreb interviewed by Milomir Maric recounts that the Count handed him three pounds of gold and commissioned him to make a sword and a knife with monograms of the celebrated Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. The faker complied. The Cellini weaponry was presumably sold to an unwary collector. When someday it turns up again, it will be amusing.
In 1925 Count de Ina was off to Paris, where he rented a luxurious apartment in the fashionable Seizième Arrondissement. He was known for entertaining lavishly and for bragging about his wealth and art treasures. He haunted museums and galleries and in art circles came to be respected as a reputable connoisseur. The word was that the count owned a fabulous collection worth at least ten million francs -- an enormous sum for the time.
What's funny is that no one ever actually saw this great collection. He showed only photographs, especially of the "Benvenuto Cellini" gold knife and sword. His apartment had few works of any note. He told visitors that his real treasures were safely hidden elsewhere.
In 1929 the Count was hit hard in the world Depression. He boasted he'd go to America, sell his collection for a fortune, and return to Yugoslavia to start a newspaper.
If the Count went to America isn't clear. He did go back to Yugoslavia, but not to launch a newspaper. He returned to Zagreb and plotted a master theft with an old friend from his army days, a chap named Josip Broz, who later on became Marshal Tito, the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia.
Count de Ina and his friend Broz took up residence in Zagreb in a humble apartment rented by the bell-ringer of the cathedral. Soon the Count's refined manners, courtly behavior, charm, eloquence and knowledge opened every door. The two men stayed a month and left. Broz went to Russia; De-Ina-Pjelik-Mimara to Paris.
By September 1929 the Yugoslav Royal government asked the French for the extradition of one Mirko Maratovic or Mimara in connection with an amazing theft of the treasury of the cathedral in Zagreb. Mimara and Count de Ina disappeared. They merged into the man henceforth known as Ante Topic Mimara Matutin.
How the word of the theft got out is amusing. In 1929 a Viennese art dealer, traveling through America, visited the Cleveland Museum of Art and learned that the institution had recently bought a fabulous early Romanesque ivory diptych, found somewhere "in the Balkans" from a "French" art dealer. It cost the then-exceptional price of ten thousand dollars. He took a look and immediately recalled a visit some years earlier to the renowned treasury of the Cathedral in Zagreb where he'd seen almost the exact same ivory of the eleventh century set into a frame studded with precious stones.
Once the dealer returned to Yugoslavia, he dropped by the cathedral and wasn't surprised to see in place of the famous diptych a wretched copy of the ivory in its original ornate silver frame. A number of the original precious stones had been replaced with glass replicas. (The ivory was returned to Yugoslavia in 1936.)
Topic's activities between the two world wars haven't been fully documented, but it seems he traveled constantly throughout Europe, England, and the Soviet Union searching for unique, world-class "treasures" -- those no one else recognized. He haunted out-of-the-way churches and monasteries. He changed his name continually, obtained a series of fake passports, and lived at a myriad of addresses, some real, some imaginary. He had a clutch of business cards, but the one he favored was: "Ante Topic Matutin Mimara, Art Restorer."
In the 1930s he became a member of Tito's Communist party. Yet, probably unknown to his old accomplice Tito, Topic also became a member of the Soviet KGB. He moved to Berlin around 1932. He met Hitler in the beer halls and became something of an art adviser to Hermann Goering. He did this, in his words, to worm his way into the highest echelons of the Nazi party. He became a specialist in buying -- cheaply -- the estates, family inheritances and art works of the Jewish families who were fleeing the Nazis.
Concerning Topic's boast of being close to Goering, interestingly, war records show that KGB agents, deeply imbedded in the highest levels of the Luftwaffe, gave Stalin detailed information about the impending German invasion. Stalin rejected it, thinking that the information was too good to be true. Could it be that one of these spies was Topic? Why else would Khrushchev honor him with the highest Soviet award given to foreigners? There's a photograph in Pravda commemorating the ceremony, with a beaming Topic shaking the hand of the party Secretary.
Topic managed to survive the battle of Berlin and got out of the Soviet zone in 1946 by a typically "Mimarian" act of clever subterfuge. He appealed to an unnamed high-ranking American officer, claiming that the evil Russians wanted to kidnap him. This officer helped him to obtain two boxcars for his art, which was shipped into the western zone, to Säckingen, a hamlet in the French-occupied zone of Germany, on the border with Switzerland. This was a brilliant score for the KGB, which now had one of its top agents in the West aided by the very people upon whom he would start to spy.
In 1947 he was arrested by the French Sûreté for black market activities and currency violations. He was expelled from the French Zone and showed up in recently liberated Belgrade where he paid a call on the chief of Marshall Tito's cabinet asking for a military post. He had figured out the potentially best art scam ever. In Germany, at the Collecting Point in Munich, tens of thousands of works of art, which the Nazis had seized from conquered nations and Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust were stashed, awaiting information from their former owners to be repatriated.
Mimara promised the Yugoslav hierarchy that he'd identify and send back to the homeland art treasures plundered by the Nazis. With the personal approval of Tito, he was given the rank of full colonel in the Yugoslav national army and sent to Munich.
In mid-December 1948 he surfaced, flamboyantly dressed in a custom-tailored uniform loaded with decorations, carrying a bejeweled baton, and calling himself Colonel Mate Topic. A U.S. military committee immediately handed him credentials, which allowed him to travel freely to key cities throughout occupied Germany -- a rare privilege.
Shortly after his arrival, Mate Topic began to be tracked by Major Edgar Breitenbach, a U.S. art intelligence officer stationed in Munich. Breitenbach, an art historian who would later distinguish himself at the Library of Congress, was suspicious of the Colonel from the moment they met. Breitenbach's wife, Margaret, had a vivid impression of the man as having "very red lips and beady black eyes, definitely not a typical Don Juan." Even so, soon after his arrival, Colonel Mate Topic seduced a young German art historian assigned to the Yugoslav desk, Wiltrud Mersmann.
Breitenbach watched the colonel's activities for several months.
He discovered that, with the help of his lover, Topic stole hundreds of works of art from the Collecting Point. His system was simple and brilliant. Through his lover, he gained access to the catalogue cards, which listed and described works of unknown origin. If Topic fancied a certain work of art, he'd get the facts -- especially the precise measurements -- from the catalogue card and send the information to Belgrade. The Yugoslav government would transmit an official request for restitution of the piece to its "homeland."
Topic shrewdly selected obscure churches and monasteries in Yugoslavia as provenances for the art he claimed, since after all he knew them all. In time Colonel Mate Topic was able to obtain and dispatch to Belgrade by train four sizable "restitution shipments." But, as one might expect by this point, he creamed the major share for himself, funneling them into Switzerland. It seems likely that the majority of the works had come from Holocaust victims. Is the great ivory cross one of these treasures?
Breitenbach tracked down Wiltrud Mersmann at her parents' house near Bonn. He confronted the woman with the thefts engineered by her and Topic. "She admitted everything," Breitenbach reported. But when he asked her where he could find Topic, Mersmann swore she'd no idea. Her former lover had walked out on her and had left her alone with their infant boy. Moved by the distraught woman, Breitenbach decided to conclude his investigation of poor Wiltrud Mersmann and Mate Topic Mimara, who had already vanished.
Breitenbach gave Topic's name to undercover operatives in the intelligence service of West Germany, the Bundesnachrichtdienst, or BND. This was the most effective counterspy organization in Western Europe, founded by General Reinhard Gehlen, super spy and super survivor of Hitler's military intelligence, the Abwehr.
Gehlen was recruited after the war by American intelligence forces to establish an organization for internal security, counterespionage and external espionage in West Germany principally against the Soviets.
The "Org," as the BND came to be known, achieved a series of striking coups in smashing intelligence rings formed in West Germany by Iron Curtain countries. In 1948, it uncovered a spy network established by Alexander Rankovich, chief of the Yugoslav secret service. In April 1949, with assistance from the French Sûreté, the Yugoslav espionage circuit with headquarters in Friedrichshafen was eliminated.
Among those apprehended was a Yugoslav named Levec, who confessed he was the principal agent for Tito's intelligence service in French-occupied Germany. Levec, questioned at length, revealed the identity of his boss "a certain Topic, alias Mimara, a museum custodian and member of the Yugoslav Restitution and Reparations Commission in the U.S. Zone."
General Gehlen's agents searched for Topic for six months in 1949 and 1950. Eventually, they were able to pick out five operatives working under him. The Org handed over a dossier on Topic's "apparatus" to their U.S. liaison officers, and the Americans rounded up Topic and his gang.
After extensive interrogation by officers of the United States Military Intelligence, all members of the ring but one were expelled from Germany. The notable exception, but not an entirely puzzling one knowing his powers of persuasion and survival, was Topic. He settled comfortably in West Berlin and opened a modest art gallery.
Whatever he did to secure his freedom made the Yugoslavs very angry. They tried to rub him out several times. Had he become an American agent? No one will say for sure.
He remained in Berlin for five relatively tranquil years, the tranquility broken only by one visit by the Berlin police. Suspecting that he'd illicitly acquired a number of artworks, they searched his gallery, but uncovered nothing illegal. There was only a paltry group of fakes.
After the bust, Topic immediately left Berlin and showed up in Tangier, a free port. No sooner had Topic arrived than he was spotted by an intelligence officer at the American Consulate, Edwin Murray Jackson, who prepared a report for the State Department:
"In the mid-1950s, Tangier was a wild and exciting city where outlandish behavior was normal. The city was an open money market. Everyone who was not pinned down flocked there to do business. Late in 1955, I happened to hear a particularly intriguing rumor on the cocktail circuit. A certain Mimara had just sailed into the harbor with a boat loaded with art treasures.
"Helped by the Governor of Tangier, he'd rented a luxurious apartment located in one of the best quarters of the city. It had five or six impressive salons, which Topic filled with paintings, sculpture and furniture he hoped to sell. There were some grand places in Tangier and this was one of them.
"As soon as Mimara had set up his apartment showroom, all sorts of tales began to make the rounds. One held that after the war a trainload of artworks looted by the Nazis had left Germany bound for Yugoslavia with Topic Mimara in charge.
"The train never arrived in Yugoslavia. It ended up in Antwerp or Amsterdam. From there the stuff got to Tangier."
Eventually, the State Department sent Jackson a list of works still missing from the Collecting Point and asked him to check up on Mimara's holdings.
Jackson's report to the Department tells what happened:
"One day I dropped in on Mimara's apartment. I didn't use my real name and, of course, I didn't reveal what I did in life. I passed myself off as a lover of art. I admit I am by no means an art expert, but I know something. I just looked the place over. I wasn't particularly impressed with what I saw. Mimara's collection looked to me like a random stew -- paintings and statuary and loads of filigreed gold jewelry. My distinct impression was that much of the stuff wasn't authentic. At the very least, it wasn't what Mimara claimed it to be. I brought a local art dealer with me. He had the same impression.
"I went back a second time and revealed I was with the American Consulate and wanted to compare his collection with the list of stolen goods. The man thought it was hilarious that anyone -- particularly a member of the American Consulate -- could possibly suspect him, 'Ante Topic Mimara, an upstanding man of considerable international repute,' of ever having art that wasn't his, or that wasn't bona fide. He was expansive and -- well -- jolly about it.
"I compared my list with as many of his works as I could. I suppose my examination was inadequate, but I did my best. I wasn't able to match a single item on the list with the works of art in his apartment. At Topic Mimara's request I wrote up a brief report, saying I had found nothing. I signed it and gave him a copy. He really liked that."
The reason why Jackson and others never found match-ups to Collecting Point works is that Topic -- and Mersmann -- kept them hidden and clandestinely sold them. One reason Topic had assembled his vast collection of fakes in all media and periods -- more than 4,000 of them -- was not only to offer them to unsuspecting marks but to disguise the large body of authentic works he'd stolen from the Collecting Point. What he would do with the phonies eventually is typically Mimarian.
Rumors that Topic had a hoard of illicit goods continued to circulate. In 1957, the criminal investigating units of the West German police in Berlin and Wiesbaden received complaints about a certain "Popic," a resident of Tangier. The claims alleged that the man, a supposed art dealer who had once lived in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg, might have been the recipient of an extensive collection of oil paintings and objets d'art which had been stolen from museums in East Germany and Eastern Europe. The police requested that the German consulates in Rabat and Casablanca investigate "Popic" and advise them on the likelihood of extraditing him from Morocco.
The investigation by the German Consulate in Casablanca revealed that "Popic" was the same person as Mate Topic and Ante Topic Mimara, born on April 7, 1898, in Spalato, who had worked briefly with the Yugoslav art mission at the Collecting Point in Munich. Nothing was mentioned about espionage activities.
Lack of money and interest on the part of West German officials about what was an East German issue caused the investigation to fade away.
Time and again Topic's tarnished name turned up. In November 1960 a Czech lady, Mrs. Theresia Zscheyge, with the maiden name of Stanka, born on June 14, 1922, in the city of Brux, sent an official complaint to West German police. A certain art dealer named Ante Topic Mimara, living in Berlin and Tangier, had taken a number of Old Master oil paintings from her on consignment, she claimed. He had assured her he would sell the pictures in the West at considerable profit for her. The paintings had thereupon been shipped to Topic. Mrs. Zscheyge contended that, after a year, she had received neither a report nor a payment. Once again, the West German police did not choose to pursue an Eastern complaint. Once again, the super-elusive Count de Ina, Mimara, Mate Topic, Topic Mimara Matutin, Popic, and Mirko Maratovic had eluded his trackers.
In 1961 when I started to track Ante Topic Mimara and his cross I assiduously buried the snippets of his crooked past I dredged up, so as not to jeopardize the purchase of the cross. I bought the cross in 1963 for the full price of $600,000 and despite my continual entreaties Topic steadfastly refused to give me a hint where he'd found it. He did promise that he'd put the provenance in a letter to me to be sent on his demise.
Topic Mimara died in 1971. I tried to reach his former lover, Mersmann, whom he had married. No luck. Then the old master survivor experienced a miraculous resurrection. In 1972 he appeared alive and exceedingly fit in the Presidential Suite of the penthouse of the plush Intercontinental Hotel in Zagreb. I visited him several times in his castle near Salzburg but failed to get any word on the cross' provenance.
In 1986 Topic Mimara really died at the age of 86. The huge body of fakes -- some 4,000 of the most ridiculous quality -- he willed to the state of Yugoslavia, which built a museum for them. Sadly, the Benvenuto Cellini sword and dagger weren't amongst these horrid treasures. In exchange Topic's wife was given an annual stipend and the Continental Hotel penthouse -- free.
Only in the past weeks have the Croatians begun to realize that Topic Mimara's hoard of masterpieces are 95 percent fakes produced by him and his hired forgers. I'm told by the Yugoslavian journalist who interviewed me on King of the Confessors that a huge scandal is raging there about the forgeries.
Recently, the officials of the White House Commission on Holocaust art treasures started looking intently into Topic's crooked dealings with the works he stole from the Collecting Point.
What about the Bury St. Edmunds cross? Where did Topic find it? Is it hot?
[to be continued]
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A new edition of Thomas Hoving's King of the Confessors, first published in 1981, is now available online for $17.95 from Cybereditions as a downloadable PDF file. For more information, go to Cybereditions
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