Charles Loeser

Charles Alexander Loeser, son of Frederick Loeser, a Jewish German immigrant to the United States and founder of the second largest department store in Brooklyn, New York, relocated to Europe in the late 19th Century. An American expatriate, resident in Italy at the Villa Torre La Gattaia in Florence, Loeser devoted himself to the study of Italian art and history and amassed an internationally renowned collection of art. A well known author on the history of Italian art, Loeser was often consulted professionally by museum officials and collectors and his views on many debated points were frequently cited in art publications.

In 1926, two years before his death, Loeser reached an agreement with the City of Florence to donate more than 30 important works of art and period furnishings to the Palazzo Vecchio in exchange for an extended export license for works that remained in his collection and estate. The Palazzo Vecchio now boasts the Donazione Loeser among the mezzanine galleries.

Upon his death, Loeser donated a large part of his collection to his beloved adopted home city of Florence. In addition, he generously bequeathed his notable collection of drawings to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, his alma mater. The remainder of his collection was willed to his wife, Olga Loeser née Kaufmann-Lebert, a Jewish German concert pianist. (In addition, Loeser bequeathed eight Cézanne paintings to the collection of the White House; Loeser was one of the earliest collectors of works by the artist.)

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Olga Loeser, her daughter, Matilda Calnan née Loeser, her son-in-law, Ronald W. Calnan, and her granddaughter Philippa Calnan, were residing in Florence. In 1938, an unprecedented shift toward anti-Semitic legislation occurred in Italy with the passing of the Manifesto della razza. As tension increased among the nations of Europe, Italy followed Germany and declared war in June 1940, that same year the Loeser-Calnan family left their home in Italy and returned to the United States (being of both Jewish descent and enemies of the state they were subject to numerous persecutorial measures).

The Loeser villa was left in charge of Giannino Marchig, a Florentine art restorer, who, for safekeeping, consigned part of the collection to the Uffizi Gallery and part (32 works) to be stored by the Marchese Paolucci di’ Calboli at the Palazzo Paolucci in Forli (a city northeast of Florence).

On May 14, 1945, Ronald Calnan, wrote to the Department of State following-up on a letter of February 28, 1945, requesting information on property left in Italy. Mr. Calnan had apparently received an update from the American Consulate in Florence in December 1944. According to Mr. Calnan, his wife’s home had been classified as a museum by the Royal Superintendent of Medieval and Modern Art for Tuscany. He further stated that Field Marshall Kesselring occupied the villa and selected 2 works of art which he took upon his departure, one work by Strozzi and the other by di Credi. Mr. Calnan sought assistance with the recovery of these two works.

According to a report by the MFAA dated October 1945, the pictures which remained in Florence were secure; however only 24 of the 32 works in Forli were recovered (the Marchese consigned them to the Director of the Pinacoteca Comulate in Forli). The remaining 8 were missing.

After the war, while some works from the Loeser collection remained missing, the Loeser heirs (essentially Charles Loeser’s daughter, Mathilde Calnan) sold and or donated works from the collection.

In 1995 the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Cultural Affairs published a book entitled Treasure Untraced: An Inventory of the Italian Art Treasures Lost During the Second World War. Among the works listed are five from the Loeser collection. The publication notes the some works from the Loeser collection were taken by Nazi troops in April 1944 from the Palazzo Paolucci di’ Calboli in Forli and others were stolen from the Villa Gattaia in Florence.