The Telegraph 15 November 2006
Tony Paterson and David Cox
The German government has called a crisis meeting about how it deals with art sold by or confiscated from Jews under the Nazis after controversy over paintings restored to their original families only to be auctioned for vast sums abroad.
Angela Merkel, the chancellor, has summoned culture ministers and museum directors from Germany's 16 federal states next week to discuss an overhaul of the "restitution" law, which critics say is stripping the country's museums of important works.
Under the law, paintings and sculptures that were parted with under duress must be returned to their owners or their heirs. But a heated debate over the way the law is operating was fuelled last week by two dramatic developments on the international art market: the sale of an important Expressionist work for a record price in New York, and an attempt through the courts to block the auction of a Picasso, owned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation.
The painting, Berlin Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was auctioned by Christie's for $38 million (£21 million), just months after it was removed from a Berlin museum and returned to a granddaughter of its original Jewish owners – Anita Halpin, chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Through the auction house she sold it to Ron Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire, who intends to display the painting at his Neue Gallerie in New York.
The rapid sale of the painting has provoked art lovers and museum directors to complain that Germany's artistic heritage is being spirited away from public view and sold off for millions to private collectors.
Critics claim that collectors have encouraged the former Jewish owners to seek the return of the paintings from Germany, then sought to acquire the work for themselves at auction. There are fears that a similar fate awaits at least 50 other key works by Kirchner and the German Expressionists August Macke, Lyonel Feininger and Franz Marc, whose paintings hang in the nation's museums and art galleries. "The sale of the Kirchner was just the beginning," said Michael Sontheimer, a German arts commentator.
But last night Mr Lauder hit back at the critics, insisting he had purchased only two such works of art - the Kirchner and Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – and that both would be on public display. He said he had nothing to do with the restitution of the Kirchner.
"In both cases, the art will be seen by millions of people in New York. The Klimt is on public show, the other will be on view in the future," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "It is not being 'spirited away', as they say. There is billions of dollars of art that was stolen, and only a small fraction has come back."
As America's then ambassador to Austria, he was an advocate of restitution laws adopted during the late 1990s, and said the former owners and their heirs had every right to reclaim art that had been stolen from them.
"Remember how it got there in the first place," he said. "The owners were either killed or sent to Auschwitz. German museums were only too ready to buy this stuff. These were people who died because they were Jewish.
"These works have been restituted; they are going back to people all around the world who lived most of their lives penniless because a great asset was taken away. To only get it back at the end of their lives – it's criminal. It is not great quantities, it is a few pieces."
Bernd Neumann, Germany's culture minister and the man who will chair the meeting next week, has expressed alarm at the impact of the restitution claims on national collections.
Meanwhile, Martin Roth, the director of Dresden's art museum, said last week that were it not for the system of restitution, collectors "would never have dreamt of acquiring such works" which had previously been regarded as beyond their reach, in museums.
"Paintings formerly owned by Jews which found their way into German museums because of injustice have to be handed back – period," he said. "But if these heirs are being exploited by the market, I have the right to criticise. It is my duty to protect the state's art collections. What hangs in our museums belongs to every citizen."
Some art historians maintain that the Kirchner, which the Berlin city authorities returned in July to Mrs Halpin, should not have been considered for restitution because the painting had been sold during the 1930s, at what was then a fair price, to a friend of the owner, Alfred Hess.
Last week, the German historian Julius Schoeps issued a last-minute claim to the Picasso painting, Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto which was due for auction in New York.
Prof Schoeps claims that the Picasso once belonged to his ancestor, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who sold many paintings at knockdown prices during the 1930s. His intervention forced Christie's to withdraw the work. However, a judge dismissed his claims.
Erika Jakubovits, executive director of the Presidency of the Jewish Community of Vienna, was critical of Prof Schoeps.
"Holding back a claim and bringing legal action at the last minute is a reckless action and causes harm to the restitution community in general," she said. "Such complex matters are better addressed through orderly, timely and open discussion." http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/11/12/wart12.xml