Should Looted Art From the Holocaust Be Returned?

The Jewish Press 18 October 2006
Menachem Wecker

A Response To Michael Kimmelman Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Ever since artists created berry juice paintings of buffalos on cave walls, seeking to offer the hunters mastery over their prey, artists have used limited, physical materials to create transcendent, idealized art. Conventional wisdom holds art as somehow larger than the sum of its parts.

Although each element of a painting – from materials to tools – is finite, paintings are infinite things for which we use terms like "canonic," "High Art" and "spiritual." But art is, in effect, a commodity.

However ornate one considers a sculpture, it is someone’s property. Whatever beautiful brushwork a painting might boast, it is a tangible thing – crafted of wood, canvas and paints made from the earth. Indeed, the temptation to attribute to art transcendent properties – a practice as old as art itself – turns it into essentially the kind of idolatrous decadence about which the Second Commandment warns us.

It should come as no surprise, then, that disputes about ownership of paintings often erupt. The general public can usually expect to be reminded that paintings are property only when someone tries to vandalize the art (as when a student stuck gum to a Frankenthaler painting in Detroit several months ago), when a painting brings a large sum at auction, or when it is stolen; in short, when it makes news. Recently, a group of paintings by Austrian (non-Jewish) painter Gustav Klimt (1862—1918) has made the news by qualifying for the last two media-grabbing explanations. One of the paintings from a group stolen from Jewish owners by the Nazis recently sold for a record $135 million to the Neue Galerie in New York.

Klimt’s painting, titled "Bloch-Bauer l" (1907), is being hailed as an Austrian "Mona Lisa" of sorts.

Ronald Lauder, president and co-founder of the Neue Galerie, called it "a once in a lifetime acquisition, and a defining moment for the Neue Galerie," even suggesting that the portrait was "one of [Klimt’s] greatest works of art. We are overjoyed to be able to give Adele Bloch-Bauer a permanent home at the Neue Galerie. Her presence will enrich the museum immeasurably."

Renée Price, who directs the gallery, stopped just short of calling the painting as important as "Mona Lisa," focusing instead on its significance to the museum’s collection. "This painting is as important to the Neue Galerie as the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre."

Clearly, the painting went for so much money at auction because of the narrative surrounding it.

Auctions love stories, and to the extent that a painting can tell a story about its owners, its creator, and the models that posed for it, it will climb in value. That is part of the reason why "Mona Lisa" is so valued and renowned. Much romantic mystery surrounds the identity of the model and her relationship, if any, with Leonardo da Vinci. Additionally, the painting was dramatically stolen from the Louvre and, on another occasion, was attacked with a rock, which accounts for the bulletproof glass that now protects it.

"Bloch-Bauer" rose to publicity for similar reasons. Adele Bloch-Bauer, the Jewish wife of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the wealthy Jewish sugar merchant, was the only woman Klimt painted twice in a full-length pose. Like discussions surrounding da Vinci and Mona Lisa, many speculate (these are only rumors) that Klimt and Bloch-Bauer had a secret liaison. The proponents of this theory point to the "numerous open-eye and almond shapes in the painting", "the great tenderness" with which the painting is rendered, and the manner in which Bloch-Bauer "is ennobled by her regal setting".

But for our purposes, the real question surrounding Bloch-Bauer’s portrait concerns whether it is a work of art. I see this column as an opportunity to raise readers’ awareness about art that they might not otherwise encounter in their day-to-day lives, and to address those works in a language that is relevant to all Jews and art admirers. I do not see this column as a platform from which to attack other art critics’ columns.

However, a recent column by chief New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman is particularly worthy of discussion. Under the title, "Klimts Go To Market; Museums Hold Their Breath" (9/19/06), Kimmelman asks some very provocative questions about what it means to own a painting and to potentially reclaim it. "How sad – if unsurprising – to hear that the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer are indeed cashing in, as planned, and selling four Klimts at Christie’s in November," Kimmelman begins. "A story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust has devolved into yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market."

I do not know if Kimmelman is a Jew, and frankly it does not matter one stitch. He is one of my favorite art critics to read, and he almost always comments on art in a manner that is creative and insightful, if not downright brilliant. In this column, he wonders, "Wouldn’t it have been remarkable (I’m just dreaming here) if the heirs had decided instead to donate one or more of the paintings to a public institution? Or, failing that, to negotiate a private sale to a museum at a price below the auction house estimates of $15 million to $60 million?"

He concludes the column: "How refreshing this story would have been had the Bloch-Bauers conceived a way to ensure that that birch landscape, say, ended up in public hands. In so doing, they would have earned not just public sympathy for their family’s struggle but also an enduring share of public gratitude. They would have underscored the righteousness of their battle for restitution and in the process made clear that art, even in these money-mad days, isn’t only about money. Heck, they would even have gotten a tax break."

I quote at length because I think Kimmelman deserves it. I wonder, though, if we should ask those questions to begin with. Very few people are advocating that a mass return of looted art be returned.

No museum is about to offer to return its entire collection of Native American art, of pillaged African art (especially raided Egyptian tombs) and of Eastern art stolen by Western explorers. The British Museum regularly receives demands from governments demanding the return of stolen Greek and Roman artifacts and art.
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