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.

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 family.

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 title."

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.

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