04 January 2009

Stolen Art Negotiated

Throughout history, valuable art has always been stolen. I'll cite just one example. The stunning art collection of Prague, so loved by Emperor Rudolf II, was looted in the Thirty Years War by Swedish troops. The Swedes sacked Prague Castle in July 1648, loaded the paintings onto barges and shipped them back to Stockholm.

And retrieving stolen art from the current owners and returning it to the heirs of the rightful owners has always been a nasty, drawn out legal battle that often takes decades. I have watched five such battles unfold, two of them resolved and two still in the courts. In the fifth case, the museum holding the stolen paintings agreed to give them to the heirs of the rightful owner, but the government declared some of the paintings a national heritage! This meant that some of the works could not leave the country.

A] Klimt's 'Adele' - sorted,
by Tyler Green,
in Fortune, 28th Sep 2006
When the painting Adele was completed 100 years ago, Vienna, along with Paris, was the cultural capital of the world. As was the custom among the Viennese elite, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer wanted to celebrate his much younger bride, Adele, by commissioning a portrait. Ferdinand hired an artist who had spent the past decade setting Vienna abuzz with his sexually outré takes on classical themes: Gustav Klimt.

There were details about Adele Bloch-Bauer and the artist that Ferd­inand may not have known. His wife had almost certainly modelled for Klimt since at least 1899, and the two had probably been carrying on an affair. Adele sat for hundreds of drawings in the years before Klimt finished his portrait in 1907. If Ferdinand knew, apparently he didn't mind: Adele's portrait immediately became the most prized object in his art collection. Sadly, Adele died in 1925.

Then, in 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria. Ferdinand, one of Austria's most prominent Jews, fled to Switzerland, leaving behind palatial estates and his art collection. Nearly all of it was stolen by the Nazis, whose Moravian and Bohemian governor, Reinhard Heydrich, even took Ferdinand's grandest home outside Prague for a residence. Heydrich also gave some of Ferdinand's art collection to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The SS stole the family's jewels and gave them to Hermann Göring. The portrait of Adele ended up at the Austrian Gallery, which still "owned" it when Ferdinand died in 1945.
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Ferdinand's last will specified that the paintings, presuming they were recovered from the Nazis or the Austrian state, go to his and Adele's niece Maria Altmann and two of her siblings. But during the decade after the war, Austria found reasons to deny the heirs' claims on six Klimt paintings and on Ferdinand's other property. Austria's reason for not returning Adele and five other paintings was this: It claim­ed that Adele herself wanted the paintings to be given to the Austrian state upon Ferdinand's death.

Klimt, Adele

But in the late 1990s when Austria began to open up Nazi-era records, a journalist named Hubertus Czernin learned otherwise. He was among the first to gain access to the Bloch-Bauer records, and he found that neither Ferdinand nor Adele had specified that any Klimts go to the Austrian state. The "donation" record that consigned Adele to the Austrian Gallery was dated 1941 and was signed "Heil Hitler."

Altmann, who during the war had fled to Los Angeles with her husband, saw that the family had a chance to reclaim the paintings. Earlier this year nearly a decade of legal struggles paid of­f, and Austria returned 5 of the 6 paintings. The family de­cided to sell them. The collector, Ronald Lauder, had enjoyed a brief encounter with Adele in 1986, when he was ambassador to Austria and helped arrange a loan of the painting to the Museum of Modern Art. Now he saw the oppor-tunity to buy it, not for MoMA, but for the Neue Galerie in New York.
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In June 2006 New York's Neue Galerie apparently paid $135m for the 5th looted Klimt portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Adele Bloch-Bauer II sold for c$88m in Nov 2006 at Christie's. The Blue Lantern blog in Adele Bloch-Bauer noted that the two Klimt portraits of Adele, and some landscapes that the Bloch-Bauers owned pre-war, were reunited in an exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York. I wish I had seen them.

B] The battle for two priceless Picassos – an active case,
by Tony Paterson
in The Independent World, 22nd August 2008

The paintings are not only priceless, but they have been among the star attractions at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the city's equally renowned Guggenheim Museum for more than four decades. Both are early Picassos painted at the beginning of the C20th – before the two world wars that would engulf Europe and ultimately lead to the current blockbuster of a legal battle.
Picasso, Le Moulin de la Galette

One of the canvases is Le Moulin de la Galette, a Picasso painted in 1900 that, unlike the artist's later works, appears to ape the French Impressionists with its colourful depiction of dancing couples in fin de siècle top hats and flowing dresses at a lamp-lit venue somewhere in or near Paris. The other is Boy Leading A Horse, painted just six years later. This work, sparsely executed in tones of black, grey and brown, already betrays the radically different sculptured style that was later to become Picasso's hallmark.
The Picassos had belonged to one of the leading figures in a Ger­man Jewish community that had once played a key role in giving both the country and its capital, Berlin, a reputation as a centre of int­ell­ectual excellence. The paintings were owned by Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a prominent German-Jewish banker/art collector and a descendant of the composer Felix Mendelssohn and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

Now the surviving heirs have launched a critical legal battle to have the works returned. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy heirs are all German and Swedish citizens of Jewish ancestry. The dispute is intriguing because they are demanding that the Picassos be returned by American museums. Because of his position and his role as honorary chairman of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Mr Lauder was instrumental in drawing up the so-called "Washington Declaration" under which 44 countries signed an agreement on the restitution of artworks that disappeared or were sold off during the Nazi era. Yet Mr Lauder has declined to comment on the current dispute. Instead of discussing the issue with the heirs, the MoMA and Guggenheim mus­eums have flatly rejected the claims. Lawyers for the two galleries have applied to the New York District Court, asking it to declare that they are the rightful owners of the paintings. An official hearing is expected this autumn.

Julius Schoeps, a 66-year-old Potsdam historian, is a descendant of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and is spearheading the battle to have the paintings returned to 26 descendents. Schoeps knew nothing of his ancestor's enthusiasm for art until recently, when he was visited by a Canadian van Gogh expert. She told him that his great uncle, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, once owned an extensive collection of paintings that included five Picassos, eight van Goghs and works by Rousseau, Monet and Renoir.

After conducting some research, Mr Schoeps established that his great uncle's first wife, who was Jewish, had been friendly with the art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who had helped the couple build up an imp­res­sive private collection. But in 1933, a few months after Hitler came to power, the banker was dismissed from all his public positions and his assets began to dwindle. That year, he began sending his paintings abroad. The five Picassos landed in Basel, where the art dealer Justin Thannhauser took charge of them. The next year the banker told him he was ready to sell for a good price. The paintings were entered on Thannhauser's books in Aug 1935 along with 200 other paintings. Boy Leading A Horse was bought for a reasonable price by American William S Paley, founder of CBS in 1936. Paley later became a member of the MoMA board and in 1964 he presented the painting to the museum as a gift. Apparently, he was not informed who the original owner was.

Thannhauser presented Le Moulin de la Galette to the Guggenheim in 1963, declaring that he got the work from Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in c1935. But the real circ­um­stances under which he acquired 5 Picassos is a key question in this dispute. There is no documentation showing that Thann-hauser bought them. Schoeps ass­umes that the art dealer was in debt and simply stole the paintings.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was murdered in Berlin in 1935, aged 59. But 3 months before his death he declared in his will that his second, non-Jewish, wife, Elsa, should be his heir and that after her death the inheritance should pass on to the banker's 4 sisters. The declaration included a hand-written insert which stated that Elsa Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had already received the banker's paintings as a Wedding Gift.The New York museums claim that as a widow, Elsa would have been the rightful owner of all the paintings since their marriage in 1927 and that as a result the works were sold by an Aryan who was not subject to any Nazi persec-ution. The museums' lawyers also maintain that the family was dominated by protestants such as Elsa, who "mitigated the impact of Nazi anti-Semitism" on the banker.
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C] MIA sends Nazi loot home to Paris - sorted
by Mary Abbe
in Star Tribune, 30th Oct 2008

After 10 years of detective work, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has concluded that a $2.8 million painting it has owned for decades was stolen by the Nazis. The museum has returned the 1911 painting, Fernand Leger's Smoke Over Rooftops, to the French heirs of a Jewish art collector who died in 1948. Other museums have faced similar challenges to their collections.

The saga began in 1997 when the museum received a letter claim­ing that the painting had been taken from Alphonse Kann, a legendary Fr­ench collector who owned many Picassos, Braques and late C19th Imp­res­sionist paintings. Much of Kann's art was returned to him after WW2, but not the Leger. That painting was bequeathed to the museum in 1961 by a Minneapolis businessman who bought it from the Buchholz Gallery in New York in 1951. No one questioned the picture's history. Nazi-era archives were sealed in France and inaccessible in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

Responding to the claim took years because the museum had to estab­lish if it was legitimate. Was this Leger the same one Kann had own­ed? Smoke Over Rooftops was a theme Leger painted at least six times. If so, what had happened to the picture between 1939, when Kann fled Paris on the eve of war, and 1949 when a New York art dealer bought it from a French gallery? Did Kann sell it freely, or did the Nazis confiscate it?

Leger, Smoke Over Rooftops

Not the first such claim. The institute is not alone in facing a claim that it harboured Nazi loot. From 1998 to 2006, Amer­ican museums identified in their collections 22 works that had been stolen by the Nazis, according to the New York-based Association of Art Museum Directors. The art was either returned to heirs or settle­ments were reached, in some cases allowing the art to remain at the museums. Institutions that have given back art: Art Inst­itute Chicago, Kimbell Museum Fort Worth and Seattle Art Museum.
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The Centre Pompidou in Paris returned a Braque painting to Alphonse Kann's heirs a few years ago. Not until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 did people began to grapple seriously with the fall­­out of the Nazi practice of confiscating art from Jewish collect­ors or forcing them to sell it under unconscionable circumstances. Museums realized they had to "do the right thing," which often meant returning the art to heirs, even if the art had been acquired innocently.

However, as a non-profit institution, the institute is legally bound to care for its art on behalf of the public, and couldn't simply turn over the painting without establishing its rightful owner. Resolution of the Leger painting's fate required a French lawsuit and years of painstaking scrutiny of Nazi-era documents, gallery and auction records in four countries. The research established that, after Kann fled to London, the Nazis confiscated the bulk of his collection and in 1940 moved it to the Jeu de Paume, a museum in central Paris, where it was inventoried and stayed during most of the war. The collection was so extensive that the Nazis' list ran to 60 typed pages. But the Leger painting remained in Kann's house until Nov 1942, when France's German-controlled government auctioned the house's contents. A Paris art dealer, Galerie Leiris, bought the Leger at that auction and subsequently sold it to Buchholz Gallery.

Both that gallery and the Buchholz have complicated histories. During the war, Leiris was essentially a front for a prominent German-Jewish art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had transferred title to his business to his French Catholic sister-in-law, Louise Leiris, when the Nazis confiscated his company. Buchholz Gallery was established in the 1930s by Curt Valentin, a protégé of a Berlin art dealer, Karl Buchholz, who was one of four German art deal­ers whom the Nazis allowed to sell the modern art they confis­cated from museums and private collectors.

While Valentin has not been implicated in the Nazis' nefarious deeds, his role in the transfer of modern art out of Europe is ambiguous at best. Making matters more difficult, the current owners of Galerie Leiris refused to open its archives until forced to do so by a 2001 lawsuit in a different case. Settling such claims is expensive. The Minneapolis museum hired scholars in Paris and London, corresponded with bureaucrats in Germany and studied archives in New York, Los Angeles and Washington.

It has not calculated the cost of that work, but the Art Institute of Chicago reported that in 1998-2006 it spent $500,000 studying the ownership history of its art collection. What will happen to the Leger painting now is unclear. No one from the French collector's family could be reached for comment. Initially the museum hoped Kann's heirs would lend or give it to the museum but that proved impossible.

D] Nazi loot claim fuels demand for art's return – an active caseby John Mangan,
The Age, 8th July, 2007

A Sydney lawyer is asking that the National Gallery of Victoria hands over Lady with a Fan, painted by Gerard ter Borch c1660. The paint­ing has been var­iously valued up to $1 million, and allegedly belonged to Jewish retail magnate Max Emden, who fled Hamburg and then Switzerland, leaving behind much of his massive art collection. Emden's Chile-based grandson, Juan Carlos Emden, first approached the NGV in 2004 claiming the picture had been looted.

Gallery head of public affairs Sue Coffey said the NGV had taken very seriously the issue of stolen Nazi artworks and was making a detailed assessment of Mr Emden's claim. "The NGV is seeking clar­ification of the provenance and whereabouts of the painting for the 30-year period after it entered the Bromberg collection in 1907, the work's last known owner until it was purchased by a dealer, Loebl, in Paris in 1938, its source of purchase unknown".
Lawyer George Newhouse expressed disappointment at the length of time the NGV was taking responding to the claim. "We want to work cooper­at­ively with the gallery until that line of inquiry has been exhausted," Mr Newhouse said. "Under the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, we will request a conclave of experts with balanced membership to assess our claim. If the gallery won't agree to that request, then litigation would be a last resort." 6 years ago, the NGV was the 1st Australian gallery to establish a list of works whose proven­ance had not yet been confirmed for 1933-45.


Ter Borch, Lady with a Fan

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E] Art collection stolen by the Nazis to return – but to whom?
by Jan Richter, Radio Prague 26th Sept 2008

Consider the art collection of Emil Freund, a Prague Jewish law­yer who was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Mr Freund’s entire property was confiscated and only some of the paintings in his possession were handpicked for the war-time, Nazi-controlled Jewish museum in Prague. In the 1950s, the paintings were transferred into the National Gallery where they remained until 2000.

Now Mr Freund’s collection will be sent to his heirs who live in the USA. After the Jewish Museum in Prague traced Emil Freund’s relatives in 2001, it took them 7 long years to clear the way for restitution. In the collection are representatives of Czech modern art, and also of French modern art. To mention but a few, there are 3 fine French paintings eg Paul Signac’s Steamboat on the Seine, André Derain’s Head of the Young Woman and Maurice de Vlaminck’s Way Through the French Village.

But the heir to the 32 paintings, Mr Freund’s great-great nephew who was traced by the museum, would not be entitled to the rest of his uncle’s art. Under Czech law, part of the collection is to stay in the Czech Republic. The authorities de-clared some of the paintings a National Heritage. That means, among other things, that the other 13 paintings in question cannot be sold or taken out of the country without the ministry’s approval.

The Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague was unhappy. “I think it’s absolutely unfortunate because I think that once the objects confiscated by the Nazis have their owners, these objects should be given back in any case and without any restrictions” he said.

A very interesting discussion called New law to allow return of Nazi loot can be found over at the Elginism blog. It shows how British ministers are preparing to back a new law that would allow museums to restore artwork looted by the Nazis to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

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