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Friday, April 03, 2015

Reparations, Reputation, Restitution

"In the aftermath of World War II, the human costs had been colossal, art wasn't really a priority."
"It's taken this time, now with various anniversaries -- and the last survivors that are of prewar years are leaving us, aren't they?"
Simon Curtis, director, Woman in Gold
Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold Left, a 1907 portrait by Klimt, is the center of this exhibition at the Neue Galerie and is also the focus of a movie that opened this week. Right, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of the painting, around 1910. Credit 2015 Neue Galerie New York

"These artworks are the last great prisoners of war, aren't they?"
Ronald Lauder, billionaire cosmetics heir

During the dreadful years when Austrian-born Adolf Hitler turned Germany and the Axis countries that joined him into a mechanized, seemingly-unstoppable war juggernaut, his Third Reich busied itself with plans to destroy the lives of all the European Jews they painstakingly gathered together in death camps.

Even as the clouds of death and destruction began to gather over Europe, however, the property of Jews was confiscated with the state taking possession, even while Jews were being completely disenfranchised, terrorized, identified with Yellow stars, fired from all professions and gathered into ghettoes.

While some property has been returned to rightful owners, and the government of Germany has made efforts to recompense Jews who survived the Holocaust, time cannot be turned back to restore life to six million Jewish souls who perished after suffering dreadful privation and tortuous humiliation.

 Restitution of property, of notable works of art were the last thing on the minds of those who found the means by which they could escape death. Now, almost seventy years after the end of World War II, it is estimated that up to 100,000 art works remain unaccounted for.

One wealthy Austrian family headed by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, an industrialist, had commissioned Gustaf Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife Adele, known for hosting salons of avant-garde artists and intellectuals in their palatial home. Gustaf Klimt, over the years had painted a few portraits of Adele Altmann. Those paintings hung in the Bloch-Bauer home.

Adele willed her portraits to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.

She died in 1923 of meningitis, and her husband hung all of the Klimit artwork in her bedroom. Until, in 1938 the paintings and all of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's possessions and his business interests were confiscated by the Nazis.

Most of the Bloch-Bauer family escaped Europe, finding refuge in North America. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer travelled to Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1946.

The painting that had originally been titled Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was re-titled Lady in Gold by the Germans who were proud to display it in an exhibition during the war. With the name of its Jewish model Aryanized, the painting moved from the ranks of 'corrupt' art to artistic masterpiece.

All subsequent attempts by the surviving Bloch-Bauer family, descendants of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, to reclaim the family property were rebuffed.

The Austrian government pointed out that Adele Bloch-Bauer had willed the paintings to their regal Belvedere Museum and they represented the proudest art possessions of the country. The country considered the painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, "Austria's Mona Lisa", one of the museum's most prized possessions.

And then an investigative  journalist, Hubertus Czernin -- whose reputation had been made when he was involved in revelations that former United Nations chief Kurt Waldheim, who later became Austrian president, had a Nazi past -- discovered documents suggesting that Adele Bloch-Bauer's will hadn't been legally binding.

At that juncture, one of Adele Bloch-Bauer's descendants, Maria Altmann, now deceased, sought the aid of a young lawyer whose grandfather was the composer Arnold Schoenberg who had been an acquaintance of her aunt's. Randol Schoenberg engaged in filing a claim with an Austrian art-restitution panel on behalf of the family, which was spurned.

He then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning the right to sue the Austrian government for the return of the five Bloch-Bauer family paintings by Gustaf Klimt they possessed. An Austrian arbitrator ruled in January 2006 that the paintings be returned to the family, and the five paintings then left Europe, much to Austria's dismay, for North America.

Four of the paintings were sold at auction and are now in private collections. One of the paintings can still be viewed by the public. The most celebrated of the five paintings was sold to Ronald Lauder for a whopping $135-million. That painting hangs now in the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This is a gallery gifted to New York by Mr. Lauder as a display venue of art and design of early 20th Century Austria and Germany.

There is a certain satisfaction that at least one of those luminous paintings has a public face. Perhaps all of the paintings deserve to be displayed in a publicly-accessed gallery. Austria's loss is America's gain, and this is where the satisfaction lies; that a country allied with Germany whose fuhrer was Austrian, both of which destroyed European Jewry, is denied the privilege of enjoying art immortalizing a Jewish woman.

Henry Goodman and Tatiana Maslany with a copy of Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” Credit Robert Viglasky/The Weinstein Company
And now, moviegoers can see the drama played out on screen in the film production of The Woman in Gold, the film that tells the drama of the family's efforts to have Austria remit to them property illegally and criminally confiscated by Nazi Germany, and which Austria 'inherited' after the war ended, proudly displaying the five Klimt paintings for sixty years.

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