Cosmetics king fights to keep £4m Klimt 'looted by Nazis'

The Independent 30 September 2007
Andrew Johnson

It started with a casual flip through an art book and is likely to end, 15 years later, in a courtroom with the billionaire philanthropist Leonard Lauder, scion of the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire, battling to keep a painting allegedly looted by the Nazis during the Second World War.

The painting is Blooming Meadow by Gustav Klimt, the Austrian symbolist painter whose work from the early years of the last century is now among the most highly valued and sought after in the world.

Blooming Meadow, created in 1905, is thought to be worth around £4m, and currently hangs in the New York home of Mr Lauder, the son of Estée Lauder, and one of the world's richest men.

However, Georges Jorisch, 79, a retired shop owner from Montreal, says that the painting rightfully belongs to him. He claims that it originally belonged to his grandmother – he remembers it hanging in her villa just outside Vienna as a boy – but was looted by the Nazis as the war engulfed Europe.

Mr Jorisch began his search for the painting in earnest in the early 1990s, after he saw a Klimt portrait of a relative in a Taschen art book. But it wasn't until five years ago, when he employed the Los Angeles lawyer Randol Schoenberg, who specialises in tracing lost paintings, that the trail began to warm up.

"Georges's grandmother died in Lodz or in a death camp," Mr Schoenberg said. "She had this terrible fate. Everything she owned was lost." He added: "The standard of proof is 'what is most likely?'. Is it Georges' grandmother's painting or not? I can't say with 100 per cent certainty it is. But all the evidence is pointing in that direction. If they don't hand it over we'll file a lawsuit."

Mr Lauder's lawyer, Andrew Frackman, said: "If he presents the evidence we will do the right thing with regard to Mr Jorisch.

"We're very sympathetic to Holocaust survivors and we believe in the principle of restitution. But we can't just hand it over because Mr Jorisch says it is his."

The Art Newspaper reports that a new catalogue had identified the painting as belonging to the estate of Mr Jorisch's grandmother, Amalie Redlich. It goes on to explain that the painting was originally acquired by her brother, Georges' great uncle, a steel magnate and friend of the artist. His sister was given the painting on his death in 1928 and put it in storage in 1938, from where it is thought to have been looted.

The Redlich provenance has been unclear since an early monograph listing it as the "estate of Amalie Redlich" was later dropped by a catalogue. After the war it was reportedly sold by a Viennese gallery to Rudolf Leopold, who sold it to the Manhattan dealer and collector Serge Sabarsky, from whom Mr Lauder bought it in 1983.

"It belongs to me," Mr Jorisch said. "I remember it very well. My great uncle was a huge collector. It represents a lot of value. I am not a wealthy man."

From blusher to Braque

Leonard Lauder, 73, is worth about $3bn (£1.4bn) according to Forbes. He was chief executive of Estée Lauder until 1999 and now chairs the board. His mother died in 2005. He is one of the world's biggest art collectors, specialising in cubists such as Picasso and Braque.
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