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Erika Holmquist-Wall: Estherville’s Monuments Woman

By Staff | Feb 14, 2014

While the film The Monuments Men honors the efforts of the artists and art historians who recovered and catalogued the greatest theft of art in history, Estherville has its own monuments woman who has firsthand experience determining the provenance of some of those art treasures.

Erika Holmquist-Wall, 1990 Estherville High School graduate and daughter of Dave and Kathy Holmquist, is assistant curator of paintings and modern sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art where she’s worked for the past 13 years.

Holmquist-Wall’s appreciation for art came at a young age, since her mother taught elementary art in Estherville. She also studied art with Steve Schroeder and Bill Elling at Estherville High School.

“I always knew I wanted to go into art history,” said Holmquist-Wall, who received her undergraduate degree from the College of St. Catherine, now St. Catherine University, in St. Paul, Minn. and her master’s from the University of St. Thomas, also in St. Paul, where she was well into her career at the museum while in graduate school.

It was 10 years ago that, through the assistance of the US State Department, the Minneapolis Institute of Art started looking at the history of art stolen from 1932-1946.

And, while President Obama may have squelched an art history career or two in remarks in his State of the Union address, Holmquist-Wall said determining provenance or origin of stolen art treasures is actually a growing career field.

“It is a fairly new area of art history,” she said.

The job entails determining who owned the work during the war years and if it had been looted or owned by another art museum.

Adolph Hitler and Hermann Goring, both avid art collectors, came into possession of a lot of art from Jewish families and collections. Holmquist-Wall said a couple artworks in the Institutes’s collection had been removed from the German National Museum.

“They definitely favored the old masters,” said Holmquist-Wall of Hitler and Goring.

The museum bought one painting that had been looted from and later returned to the Rothschild family after the war.

Another surprising find was an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting that had hung in Essen, Germany, sold for $75 because it had been deemed “degenerate”. Holmquist-Wall said the Nazis filtered art through the Swiss auction houses.

The Institute itself has a gloried history in the Monuments Men movement, with the director and assistant director after the war belonging to that august group. Most art museums in the US, in fact, had directors who had helped in determining ownership of the stolen art.

While there are certain inaccuracies in the movie The Monuments Men, Holmquist-Wall said the movie does a lot as far as making people appreciate the efforts that have gone into returning the stolen artworks to their rightful owners – plus it helped give her a career.

“I’m proof positive that you can get a degree in art history and find a job as a curator in a gallery,” she said.

Holmquist-Wall said the Institute will feature an Henri Matisse exhibit from Feb. 23 to May 18.