Lauder's Mix of Restitution and Collecting

The New York Times 27 February 2003
Celestine Bohlen

Ronald S. Lauder, heir to the cosmetics fortune, former American ambassador to Austria, once a mayoral candidate, prodigious art collector and major benefactor of Jewish causes, knows a lot about art stolen by the Nazis, much of it from Jews.

Starting in the mid-1990's he became a vocal champion of restitution of the artworks to their rightful heirs, an issue that was then erupting across Europe and the United States after 50 years of silence.

As chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress, Mr. Lauder has been a patron of scattered efforts to help Jews reclaim what had been theirs. In testimony before Congress, he called these stolen artworks "the last prisoners of war."

But in an interview he also conceded that he had artworks in his collection whose provenance was at best ambiguous and at worst unknowable. And some critics say he has been too slow to check the provenance of his art, even given the historical difficulties of doing it, or to make the information he does have available to outsiders.

Mr. Lauder has a particular for two turn-of-the century Austrian artists, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, many of whose works belonged to Jewish collectors before World War II. Many were stolen and lost during the Nazi years, and many of their owners were killed in the Holocaust.

Could it be that some of the missing drawings, works on paper that both artists turned out by the hundreds, are hanging on the walls of the Neue Galerie, the sparkling new addition to Museum Mile that Mr. Lauder opened on Fifth Avenue 14 months ago?

The answer, Mr. Lauder and experts say, may be unknowable.

"As for me, I am going to doubly, triply and quadruply check everything," Mr. Lauder said in the interview in his corporate office, filled with art, overlooking Central Park. "But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen" — that someone would present a claim to a work seized by the Nazis from a relative.

Mr. Lauder, who bought his first Schiele drawings as a teenager with his bar mitzvah money, says that few people paid attention to provenance when he entered the market in the late 1960's under the tutelage of Serge Sabarsky, whose collection also hangs in the Neue Galerie.

"I was like everyone else," Mr. Lauder said. "It didn't occur to me. It was not a question that people were looking at."

Mr. Lauder and his curators have since done provenance research on the works in the museum's collection, which belongs to the Lauder family, the Sabarsky Foundation and the museum itself.

Given his public stance on the restitution of stolen art, Mr. Lauder said, "I have a responsibility to be more aggressive than most."

Still, the Neue Galerie has yet to post the results of its provenance research on its Web site in accordance with a commitment by the American Association of Museums two years ago to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets. The agreement, covering art acquired after 1932 and produced before 1946, was intended to allow people anywhere a chance to look at American museum collections without having to travel here.

"We are only 12 to 14 months old, and it is taking us more time to get going and do the research necessary," Mr. Lauder said, adding that he would prefer that the museum post all provenance data at once rather than piecemeal.

Specific requests for provenance information on the collection were answered by the gallery, but often the research is sketchy and does not go back before World War II. In some cases the results are limited to the name of a New York art dealer, with no hint of prior ownership.

But the Neue Galerie's lapse is regarded as typical of Mr. Lauder, who has several times during his long career become ensnared in contradictions of his own making.

Because of his prominent position in the New York art world — he is chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a founder of the Neue Galerie and one of the city's best known collectors — experts in the field of art stolen by the Nazis are reluctant to comment publicly on his record. But several, speaking anonymously, noted that his different, sometimes overlapping roles have sometimes clashed awkwardly. One said he was inconsistent as a private collector and as head of the modern.

The issue of Holocaust-era art, which emerged first in Europe, became news in Manhattan in 1998 when District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau moved to seize two Schiele paintings that had been on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, on loan from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna. The works, "Portrait of Wally" and "Dead City III," were claimed by the relatives of their original owners, Viennese Jews whose collections and property were seized by the Nazis.

"Dead City III" was eventually sent back to Vienna, although some experts continue to challenge its provenance, which is similar to the provenance of Schiele drawings in some American museums, including a drawing entitled "Prostitute" at the Modern and another drawing, "I Love Antithesis," at the Neue Galerie.

All three pictures come from the collection of Fritz Grunbaum, a Viennese cabaret artist who was killed by the Nazis after they seized his art. His collection of Schiele drawings and watercolors was auctioned in Switzerland in 1956, and after the New York seizure of "Wally," the validity of the auction has been questioned, with no clarity about whether the works were ever in the possession of a lawful heir.

Tina Walzer, an Austrian art historian, said of the Grunbaum case: "There's never been restitution. What we know for sure is the Grunbaums were expropriated and that some of these objects reappear in Switzerland in 1956."

Museums like Mr. Lauder's with art from this collection "should at least make public that this once belonged to the Grunbaum collection," Ms. Walzer said, adding: "Why not make plaques that say where they came from? I think that would be a fair solution."

As the Modern's chairman, Mr. Lauder implicitly backed the museum's legal position on the seized paintings, which supported the Leopold Foundation's arguments that American courts do not have the right to intervene in the affairs of another country. But four years later, Mr. Lauder, as chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery, protested indignantly when the State Department, using the same argument, stopped a California court case in which an American heir was suing Austria for the return of six Klimt paintings taken from her uncle by the Nazis.

Asked about the inconsistency, Mr. Lauder said he excluded himself from participating in the Modern's case "because of wearing two or three hats."

"I have been consistent in my desire not to be involved," he said, adding that he still maintained that exceptions to sovereign immunity are needed for Nazi-era restitutions.

People who have worked closely with Mr. Lauder and who admire his tenacity on restitution issues, agree that he has a "blind spot" when it comes to his own collection. Certainly, his love for acquisition has gotten him in trouble before. When he was ambassador to Austria in 1986 and 1987, he was accused in parliament and the press of trading on his official position to buy and export valuable paintings and furniture.

Mr. Lauder bridled at the charges, which he said had been cooked up by Austria's right wing in response to his stance on Jewish issues. He denied that he had used his position, noting that the parliamentary inquiry was eventually closed.

At the time, he told one Austrian newspaper that his purchases were mostly souvenirs, not museum pieces, although the list of exports printed in the Austrian press included pieces of furniture by Josef Hoffmann and others, whose works are now represented in the Neue Galerie. Mr. Lauder said none of the pieces he bought as ambassador was on exhibit. "I own 120 Hoffmann chairs, and only 3 are on display," he said.

Three times in the last decade Mr. Lauder has been presented with claims to artworks: two medieval shields, which were returned to France and to Italy, and a Russian painting, also returned, that had been seized from a Russian museum by the Nazis.
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