News:

The auction of nearly all restituted works of art is inevitable

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Financial Times 4 July 2015
Letter from Julian Agnew, Director, Julian Agnew Fine Art, London, SW1, Former Chairman, Society of London Art Dealers


Sir, David Baddiel ("The freedom to sell restituted art", Life and Arts, June 27) makes some interesting philosophical points but he is not perhaps aware of some of the complexities of the art market.

The restitution of the Bloch-Bauer Klimt raises another interesting problem. For many years the painting had hung in the museum of the Belvedere in Vienna. The legal issues surrounding its restitution to Maria Altmann were far from straightforward, but were decided by an Austrian court in her favour. Following the restitution, the portrait was sold to an American private collector for a rumoured $125m and three other Klimts from the same collection went to auction. It would not surprise me if a very considerable amount of the proceeds of these sales went to the lawyers responsible for the success of the claim, though Mrs Altmann gave her share of the proceeds to philanthropic institutions. However, the net result of this story is that large sums of money have changed hands and the ownership of the painting has been transferred from the Viennese museum, in which it could be argued it would most appropriately be shown, to that of a collector who for the time being is showing it to the public in his privately owned museum in New York, but who with his descendants is free to take it into his own home or sell it again. Does this make sense in artistic terms or is it more of a financial merry-go-round?

Also, it should not be forgotten that in many successful restitutions there is a second innocent victim in the present-day owner, who has usually bought the work of art in good faith, often after it has passed through the market several times, only to be deprived of it. Is it not time to consider putting a time limitation on such claims? The Monuments Men did a very good job in restituting works of art in the three years after the end of the war. It is now 25 years since 1990, when the second wave of such claims began. Enormous amounts of research have been done into the whereabouts of works of art between 1933 and 1945, often to no effect. A statutory deadline of, say, the end of 2018 would give the chance to any remaining claimants to come forward and then give certainty to present owners. If these claims are allowed to go on forever, it will soon be as impossible to separate right from wrong as it would be to reopen claims from the last period in which great quantities of art were moved around Europe in doubtful circumstances, the Napoleonic wars.

 

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