When my mother was a child, she lived with her parents, Ernst and Otti Fabian, in one room, in Hertford Street in Cambridge. My grandfather worked as a hotel porter but, suffering as he did after the war with clinical depression, never settled into any kind of career.
There was little light at the end of the postwar tunnel for the Fabians. In 1952, however, West Germany signed a compensation treaty for Holocaust survivors. As a result, from that point onwards, my grandparents received a double pension, both from the UK and West Germany. This wasn’t much compensation. In Königsberg, where Ernst was from, the family were haute-bourgeoisie, owning a brick factory which employed over 300 people.
On Wednesday, the first painting from the haul of art discovered in 2012 at the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, was sold at Sotheby’s, fetching £1.865m, more than three times the presale estimate. If previous examples from the sale of restituted art are anything to go by, this will raise eyebrows — and hackles. Restitution is a complicated process, both historically and morally. It is difficult, as a Jew, to ask for your money back. Even if it is rightfully yours — even if it was stolen, with intense violence, from your immediate ancestors — there’s always a troubling sense that you’re falling into some sort of cash-grabbing stereotype. And, perhaps more importantly, at some level soiling the purpose of restitution, which is justice.
The most famous example of this quandary, pre-Wednesday’s sale, revolved around works by Gustav Klimt, which included his portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish manufacturer and art collector in Vienna. The paintings had remained in Austrian state hands following the Anschluss but, in 2006, after a long and costly legal battle fought from the US, were restituted to Ferdinand’s niece, Maria Altmann. That in itself was surely just. But when, soon afterwards, Altmann decided to sell the paintings at auction she was criticised. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman argued that “cashing in” transformed “a story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust” into “yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market”.
In 2007, I made a BBC documentary, Baddiel and the Missing Nazi Billions , on Holocaust restitution, and discovered the sums — encompassing $150bn — are huge, not only in lost art, but also property, business, bank accounts and insurance claims. Insurance was actually what I found most interesting, specifically life insurance. Claims for murdered relatives who held policies have been ongoing against the major German insurance companies since the war ended: small amounts have been paid out. But here’s the thing. One thinks of life insurance as a comedy subject — The Two Ronnies did sketches about life insurance salesmen boring their guests at cocktail parties — and yet, during this film, I began to feel the idea of life insurance was the very hallmark of a civilised society. Because if life is worth something, genocide is impossible.
Which is why I think critics were wrong to criticise Maria Altmann for selling a painting that she rightfully owned. If restitution means anything, it should be about restoring the civilised order; and in the civilised order, anyone who owns something should be allowed to sell it for the highest market price. It would be considerably less “a story about justice and redemption” if the rightful owners of this art were to feel constrained by the high-flown sanctimony of others from doing whatever they want with their property.
These moral sanctions, of course, apply less to those trying to get back some small fraction of their murdered relatives’ bank accounts or insurance claims, because of some supposed sacred status of art (a status which, by the way, never existed — art has always been about money). But the truth is that the same process should apply across the board: that which was stolen should be returned. Period. Because with justice should come something else that was lost: freedom.
Apart from anything, good luck to those survivors and descendants who have actually made some money from their restitution. My grandparents — rich industrialists, as I say, in Germany — managed, after 15 years of saving their double pension, to move to a two-up, two-down, five houses up on Hertford Street, where they lived out the rest of their lives. It cost them £900.