Missing for 80 years, Holocaust victim's artwork is finally returning to Paris

Europe  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
MAR 24, 2024 LISTEN
© Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Works by the early 20th-century Jewish artist Ary Arcadie Lochakov are being sent from San Francisco back to Paris, where they'll be housed in the Museum of Jewish Art and History. There are few clues as to how the artworks mysteriously appeared in the US, eight decades after Lochakov's death in Nazi-occupied Paris.

A Port of San Francisco employee, Jermaine Joseph, came across the artworks during his maintenance rounds along the city's waterfront in May 2022. The 48 drawings, prints and paintings were arranged on a bench, some fixed with stones to prevent them from blowing away. 

Together with colleagues, he gathered the art and took it back to headquarters. They wanted to know where it had come from but had no leads. Local police said they had no reports of stolen or missing art, and there was no surveillance footage of the park.

They decided to look more closely at details that most of the artworks shared: dates between 1920 and 1941, and the signature “Lochakov”. 

A lost artist

Ary Arcadie Lochakov – sometimes written Lochakow – was born in 1892 to an artistic Jewish family in what is now Moldova, then part of the Russian Empire. He served as an officer in World War I before moving to Paris to pursue art in 1920. 

He exhibited at some of Paris's most prestigious art shows, working part-time in a photography studio to get by.

As World War II broke out and Nazi forces occupied Paris, Lochakov went into hiding. He died from malnutrition in October 1941. 

Since then, his career has been lost to the historical record – with a few exceptions. 

Paris-based author Hersh Fenster wrote about Lochakov in his 1951 book Our Martyred Artists. Published in Yiddish with a preface by Marc Chagall, it told the stories of Jewish members of the School of Paris (a loose term for artists, including the likes of Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Joan Miro, who came to Paris in the early 20th century). 

Nadine Nieszawer, an art dealer focused on the Paris School's “lost Jewish artists”, inherited Fenster's archives. She was already connected to Lochakov through her grandparents, who bought a 1923 work directly from the artist.

Until the San Francisco discovery, it was one of only a handful of paintings attributed to the artist. It depicts his friend David Knut, a Jewish poet and Resistance figure, and was acquired by the Museum of Jewish Art and History in 2020 for €23,400. 

Despite his value to art history, information on Lochakov, described as a “loner” during his life and a “little known artist” today, remains sparse. 

“He didn't have a wife, any children, a family,” Pascale Samuel, the Paris museum's curator, told The San Francisco Standard, which first reported the story.

“We don't know what happened to Lochakov's studio after his death.” 

Unknown provenance

Port staff in San Francisco contacted experts, including Samuel and Nieszawer, to find out more about Lochakov's artistic footprint.

Prints of his work held by the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum in northern Israel helped authenticate the newly discovered pieces.

Neither Nieszawer nor Samuel can guess how Lochakov's artworks appeared in pristine condition in California eight decades after his death.

The ownership history of the collection found in the park remains, for now, mostly unknown. 

The San Francisco Standard speculated that a friend of Lochakov could have brought the works to the United States or that an American descendent of Nazi occupiers of Paris inherited a stockpile of Jewish art. Some frames, however, have been traced to a maker in Alabama. 

Samuel said it was one of the greatest mysteries of her career.

San Francisco's city council passed a resolution in January for the finds to be transferred to the Museum of Jewish Art and History, France's largest museum of Jewish culture.

Before returning them to Paris, the port plans to display the artwork but has yet to announce when or where. 

(with newswires)