Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Restitution Resolutions---Cashing in on Artistic Assets

Nazi victims or their heirs who have been fortunate enough to receive restitution of expropriated artworks get justifiably testy if anyone suggests that they consider anything but their own financial self-interest is determining the disposition of these works. After all, they are the rightful owners; no one else has any right to tell them what to do with privately owned art.

As a practical matter, this has sometimes meant that masterpieces previously in the public domain are sold into the private domain, to the highest bidder.

At least this time, with the sale of Klimt's "Adele Block-Bauer I," reportedly for $135 million, the former Nazi loot will be kept permanently on public view at the Neue Galerie in New York.

But even the lawyer who forged the heirs' legal victory, Randol Schoenberg, has publicly expressed some regret that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which is currently displaying the iconic Klimt, along with four other works by the same artist that were returned to the same heirs) was unable to swing a deal to buy all five paintings. LACMA, trying to scrape together a serious offer, could not compete with the ready fortune of cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, president of the Neue Galerie and its chief benefactor.

A private charity, not a public museum like LACMA, the Neue Galerie is also "interested" in acquiring the other four Klimts, according to its director, Renée Price, who would not say more about possible purchase discussions. The four will be displayed at the Neue Galerie, along with its new acquisition, July 13 to Sept 18.

The famous gold-ground portrait will be bear a label saying that it was "made available in part through the generosity of the heirs." Price told me that this did not mean it was a partial purchase and a partial gift to the Neue Galerie, as this language would seem to indicate. In this case, "generosity" merely means that the heirs decided to forego possible higher offers, in order to make sure the work remained on public display, Price explained.

"Generous" to settle for a mere $135 million---far more than any artwork has ever fetched at auction? We should all get the chance to be so altruistic!

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