Complex justice in a Nazi-looting case
Next week’s auction of modernist masterworks ends a long chapter, but
won’t close the book on wartime art thefts.
By April Austin | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Four masterpieces by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) will be
auctioned next Wednesday, bringing to a climax one story of Nazi looting
and a family’s efforts to reclaim its heritage. The sale, however,
raises complicated issues of museum responsibility, public access to
important works of art, and a need to correct injustice.
The Austrian National Gallery returned the paintings in January to the
heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish businessman whose
extraordinary art collection included porcelains as well as 19th-century
Austrian paintings. The four to be sold Nov. 8 at Christie’s in New York
could fetch more than $93 million.
A fifth painting, the portrait “Adele Bloch- Bauer I” sold earlier this
year for a record $135 million to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, for his
museum, the Neue Galerie in New York. As the auction nears, speculation
is heating up that Mr. Lauder may try to buy at least one additional
Klimt for the museum.
The family’s decision to auction the paintings – instead of donating all
or a portion of them to a museum – was met with disappointment in the
museum community. The Austrian museum was unable to meet the price set
by the family, led by Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, in Los
Angeles. An agreement also failed to materialize with the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art. Concerns were raised that the paintings might be
bought by private collectors and disappear from public view.
“No one would say, ‘This woman doesn’t have the right to do what she
wishes with these paintings,’ because of the tragic circumstances,” says
James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. Cuno served on
a presidential advisory panel on Holocaust assets. He considers it a
loss when paintings of such caliber must leave a museum, even if for all
the right reasons.
“The entire issue is about righting a historic wrong,” says Sharon
Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art
Research (IFAR). “These cases are more poignant because of the emotional
and ethical – as well as legal – issues involved.”
“Maria Altmann is a very determined woman,” says one of her lawyers,
Steven Thomas, in Los Angeles, referring to Ms. Altmann’s eight-year
legal battle to win the paintings back. “She wanted to set all those
wrongs to a right.”
When the Nazis took control of Austria in 1938, Bloch-Bauer escaped from
Vienna to Zurich, losing his business, homes, and art.
After the war, Austrian officials took “a very aggressive position” on
retaining artwork, says E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who pursued the
case against the Austrian museum. The Bloch-Bauers, along with other
families, had to cut deals in order to get certain art out of the
country. The Austrians took advantage of this, says Mr. Schoenberg, and
used Adele Bloch-Bauer’s will (Ferdinand’s wife, who died in 1925) as
leverage for holding the Klimts.
In January 2006, Austrian arbitrators declared that the paintings had
been obtained illegally, and under Austrian law, must be returned to the
In 1941, Bloch-Bauer wrote to Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka from
Zurich: “In your position, I would have gone to America and if it is
still possible, go immediately! Europe will be a heap of ruins, perhaps
the whole world; for art there will be no place here for decades!…
Perhaps I will get [back] the two [Klimt] portraits of my poor wife….
I should find out about that this week!… [I] will wait and find out,
whether justice will still come, then I will gladly lay my hammer down.”
Bloch-Bauer never saw his art again.
After the war, the paintings were moved to the Austrian museum, where
they hung for 60 years and were seen by hundreds of thousands of
visitors. The portrait “Adele Bloch Bauer I” was second only to Klimt’s
“The Kiss” as a tourist attraction.
It is the loss of this close identification of a group of paintings with
a cultural milieu – that of Vienna – that saddens Cuno. “Museums live
with the hope that pieces which come to us from private collections will
remain in the public view,” he says. At the same time, “the public
trusts us not to hold on to objects for which we don’t have clear
The Klimt paintings were exhibited in Los Angeles and New York after
their return to Mrs. Altmann and in advance of the auction. “She wants
it acknowledged in this very public setting that justice has been done,”
says lawyer Schoenberg. Altmann, who is in her 90s, has said publicly
that she hopes the paintings will be made accessible to the public by
whoever buys them.
Bidding is likely to be intense next week on the four remaining Klimts,
which include a later portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and three
landscapes. Excitement around the Klimt sale owes in part to “interest
in the cultural circumstances of Klimt and the artists in Vienna during
the Freudian era,” Cuno says. “The paintings are glamorous in a decadent
way. That makes them more modern.”
US museums receive about three or four ownership claims a year against
their collections, says Erik Ledbetter of the American Association of
Museums. Mr. Ledbetter was project manager for the start-up of the AAM’s
Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, one of a dozen such databases in
the US and Europe.
But Hector Feliciano, a journalist who has researched Nazi-looting cases
extensively and published a book on the topic, “The Lost Museum,” says
that museums are underreporting the number of claims they receive and
failing to fully disclose the numbers of suspect art in their
collections. American museums took the lead in setting guidelines in the
late 1990s, but in the years since, momentum has stalled. European
museums are slower still, with some former East Bloc countries lacking
restitution laws that would aid in the return of looted property.
Ledbetter of the AAM says the amount of research involved is daunting
and will take decades. “Our effort is to define the largest universe of
work that could have passed through Nazi hands,” he says. Of the 20,000
items listed on the Nazi-era provenance portal, for example, probably
“99 percent will be found not to have had any Nazi connection,” he says.
Mr. Feliciano and others say the number of Nazi-looted art objects,
particularly in Europe, reaches into the hundreds of thousands, with
countries steadily selling off assets for which no heirs have been
found. Critics of the databases say it’s not fair that the onus is on
survivors’ families to know what they are looking for. They also argue
that museum guidelines are fuzzy and open to interpretation.
What is the public to make of these competing interests?
Experts say that until museums clarify their guidelines and governments
quicken the pace of declassifying wartime documents and improve
restitution laws, families will have a difficult battle proving their
claims. In the meantime, the Klimt sale will be watched closely.
“Who can say if this is the last high- profile case?” asks Dr. Flesher
of IFAR.