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US art recovery act tainted by the support of vested interest

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Jewish Journal 24 May 2016

By Aaron Levy

Ronald S. Lauder, President and co-founder of Neue Galerie New York, speaks to the press as Maria Altmann, heir to the Bloch-Bauer family, watches during a press preview announcing the acquisition of the Gustav Klimt painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and four other paintings from the collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer in New York, July 12, 2006. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters.

The introduction of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act into the US Senate in April this year has been widely welcomed, and rightly so as it gives a further possibility of redress to the families of victims of the Nazis.

It is also undoubtedly a helpful vehicle for the bill’s main proponent, Ted Cruz, to bolster the Republican party’s shot at the Jewish vote. But the usefulness of this piece of legislation might not stop there.\

One of those people jumping to the support of the bill is Ronald Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress. This is perhaps not surprising especially given he also chairs organisations that champion restitution efforts. But does his record show that his interest is entirely altruistic?

Prior to becoming President of the World Jewish Congress, Mr Lauder was mired in controversy surrounding the provenance of two paintings by Egon Schiele, alleged by some to have been looted by the Nazis, which he acquired.

Mr Lauder’s most prominent involvement in recovering artwork was the case of the Woman in Gold, the most valuable of the works by Gustav Klimt, which then ended up in Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York.

This painting was of a prominent Austrian Jew Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was looted by the Nazis after her death. The legal case for its recovery was brought on behalf of Adele’s descendant Maria Altmann who was at the time quoted in the New York Times as saying the Mr Lauder “was incredibly generous and constantly supportive”. The painting was of course one that Ronald Lauder had long had his eye on, having previously been US Ambassador to Austria. Following this support the painting was promptly sold by Mrs Altmann to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie.

So while Ronald Lauder is the public face of restitution, if we look at this case, what has effectively happened is that it has facilitated the transfer of a famous painting from a national gallery in Austria to a private one in New York. The family of Mrs Bloch-Bauer has of course benefited from this, and that is only right as it was their property that was looted by that evil regime.

As one of the most influential Jewish leaders on the world stage, and a long-time supporter of the Republican party, it is also possible that he may in fact be one of the architects behind this new bill. He was one of the first to endorse it publicly, and is quoted alongside the politicians who are leading the charge. The problem here is not merely his interest in restitution, but the fact that his love of acquiring artwork creates the impression that this is why he promotes such an initiative?

But those who represent the Jewish people on the world stage, and who are the public face of restitution efforts, should not also be able to personally benefit from them. Certainly Mr Lauder’s actions in this matter calls into question his judgement and his leadership of Jewish efforts for restitution, given his clear vested interest in this area.

So while the efforts of Senators Cruz, Schumer, Blumenthal and Rounds, who are promoting this new act in the US Senate are a helpful step in advancing efforts to restore property stolen during one of the darkest periods in our history, the support of Ronald Lauder is perhaps not exactly a blessing. Indeed it could positively taint their efforts.

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