By Anne Johnson
NEW YORK CITY – Walking through the white, angular galleries inside the Museum of Modern Art, Hector Feliciano points to a Cubist painting of a dull, brown and blue toned figure and says in his warm accent, “This is one of the paintings looted by the Nazis.”
In recent years, “Harlequin” by Pablo Picasso and other paintings with similar histories have been returned to their pre-war owners, thanks in part to Feliciano. Feliciano documented 2,000 of the nearly 200,000 stolen artifacts in his book “The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art”.
Feliciano spent 8 years of his life researching and writing “The Lost Museum”. He spent the last 10 years helping a few European families recover prized heirlooms. Now, Feliciano is moving on from this secretive and exclusive world of art dealers and museum curators.
As the 57-year-old sits down at Dean & Deluca, Feliciano is a little late and out of breath. He explains he has just come from the library. “I go there to write . . . and I write and write and write,” he says. His thick accent is impossible to place as a result of learning Spanish, English, French, and Latin at a young age.
Feliciano went to school at an all-male private school back home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Moving to the states, he then attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “I was expected to be a doctor,” he says with a crooked smile, rolling his eyes a bit. Disappointing his family of doctors, Feliciano quickly dropped the pre-med track and found his passion in history. After receiving his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University, he bought a one-way ticket to Paris where “The Lost Museum” began.
While in Paris, Feliciano went the National Archives to search for relevant documents. He was turned away and told that he would never find what he was looking for there or anywhere. “That was the wrong thing to tell a journalist,” he says with a wry smile. The crow’s feet around his eyes scrunch up as he smiles, revealing a lifetime of laughter and a taste of the “excellent Latino sense of humor” described by friend Alan Riding.
He is a journalist first and foremost and will be the first to say it. According to Feliciano, his journalistic skills enabled him to gain access to wealthy, private families and to string together the forgotten histories of the paintings.
“When his book was published in France, it not only upset a good number of French museum officials, but it also had the effect of opening up the entire art restitution issue to intense public debate,” said Riding, a journalist who met Feliciano while stationed as the Paris Bureau Chief of the New York Times.
Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, Honorary Chairman on the Board of Trustees at the MoMA wrote, “France stopped trying to find owners after 1959. It was only in 1997, after being reminded by Hector Feliciano that an exhibition was held, and a list was published of these 2,000 works.”
“Thanks to Hector Feliciano’s book and advice, many Jewish families have recovered art belonging to them,” said Riding, adding, “in some cases from very respectable museums.” Picasso’s “Harlequin” at MoMA is a recent example.
The public’s response was overwhelmingly positive and praising reviews from the New York Times didn’t hurt either. “I knew I had a big story, [but] I was not expecting the explosion,” clarifies Feliciano.
There were some negative repercussions of the book as well. The Wildenstein family sued Feliciano on charges of libel over the portrayal of Georges Wildenstein as a double-crossing art dealer with connections to the looting of art. Riding points out, “the trial was very wearing on him, not least because the Wildensteins are very wealthy and Hector Feliciano is not.”
With 10 years of hindsight, Feliciano says that if anything, he wishes he made even stronger, more pointed statements. “Because all of it’s true,” he explains with a shrug of his shoulders. While his research and subsequent book gained him “prestige critique.” as he calls it in French, he is ready to move on.
A few years ago, Feliciano began working as an adjunct professor at New York University. He leads a Freshman Honors Seminar entitled “The Art of the Enemy”, which focuses on looted art from Byzantine iconoclasm to the recent raiding of museums in Baghdad.
Student Molly Snyderman says, “His incredible experiences beyond the classroom allow him to share knowledge not found in a text book.” If anything, his legal battles with families and museum officials only added to his colorful character and his ability to inspire people from first hand accounts. Freshman Ian Hartz claims, “I actually want to study and work in art theft because of his class.”
Feliciano looks right at home inside the clean walls of Dean & Deluca, although he has an air of someone who finds home wherever he goes. Perhaps this is a result of his grounded childhood. “It’s all about stability,” he says.
The journalist/author/professor speaks with a spirited passion on every subject, his golden-brown eyes twinkling behind his thin glasses. Curiosity, the very thing that drew him to the lost paintings in the first place, is now pulling him towards other interests.
Feliciano doesn’t want to keep chasing after paintings for the rest of his life. “I’m like a musician who is a one-hit-wonder,” he says, accent roaring. It’s time for his next album and it’s already in progress.
Feliciano’s next book, due out early next year, is a comprehensive look at the beginning of impressionism. A fairly harmless topic, but with Feliciano at the helm, a “dogged and determined researcher” as described by Riding, who knows what scandals he will dig up.