For once the prices weren’t the main talking point, although they were jaw-dropping enough. At Sotheby’s in London last week an abstract painting called Suprematism, 18th Construction, done in 1915 by Kazimir Malevich, went for £21.4 million ($43.5m). Gustav Klimt’s gorgeous, wraithlike 1902 Portrait of Gertrud Loew fetched £24.8m (Sotheby’s had estimated £12m-£18m); while Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on a Beach, an elegant study of sleek steeds splashing through waves, was a snip at £1.86m.
What marked out these canvases from others in the sale, however, was not the quality of the brushstrokes or the frenzy of the bidding. Rather, it was the soiled hands through which they had passed. All three were stolen during the Nazi era, when wealthy Jewish families were forced to sell, renounce or abandon their artworks to unscrupulous dealers.
The most unscrupulous, ironically, was Jewish himself. The Nazis needed Hildebrand Gurlitt’s expertise, so he was allowed to deal in the looted art market on behalf of Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, stashing away hundreds of paintings for himself. When he died these passed to his son Cornelius, a reclusive oddball who stored them for decades at homes in Munich and Salzburg. Gurlitt Jr might have spent his entire life secreted with his paintings (his “only friends”, he told journalists) if he hadn’t been stopped four years ago carrying €9000 in cash from Switzerland to Germany, and investigated for tax evasion.
When officials discovered more than 1500 paintings in his homes — including works by Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Gauguin — Gurlitt promised that those proved to have been illegally acquired by his father would be returned to their rightful owners.
In the event, he died in May last year and his will left the collection to the Kunstmuseum in Bern.
To say that this placed the Swiss in a moral quandary would be an understatement, but the museum made a clever deal with the German government, whereby paintings with any sort of question mark over them would remain in Germany. Last month one of these — Matisse’s Woman Sitting in an Armchair — was handed over to the heirs of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, from whom it was stolen when he fled Paris in 1940.
The Liebermann auctioned at Sotheby’s is the second painting from the Gurlitt collection to have been returned to its rightful owners. They are the heirs of the art collector David Friedmann, whose estate was seized by the Nazis one day after Kristallnacht, and whose family mostly perished in Auschwitz.
Two Riders was auctioned by the Nazis in 1942 and bought by a museum director who flogged it to Gurlitt Sr. Oddly, the Allies’ “monuments men” confiscated it in 1945, but returned it to Gurlitt because they could find no documentation linking it to the Friedmanns. (Correspondence between two Nazi officers connecting the painting to Friedmann surfaced only later.)
Only a great-nephew, David Toren, survives to tell the full story; he escaped to Sweden on a Kindertransport. “I am 90 now and blind,” he says, explaining why he put Two Riders up for sale. “So while the return of the painting is of huge personal significance, I can no longer appreciate it as I did all those years ago in my great-uncle’s house.”
The beautiful Klimt has an even more labyrinthine history.
Its subject, Gertrud Loew, was 19 when it was done, the daughter of a celebrated doctor in fin-de-siecle Vienna. She went on to marry Elemer von Felsovanyi, a Hungarian industrialist. The family owned many paintings, all unlawfully sold when they fled to the US in 1939.
Paradoxically, this portrait was purchased by Klimt’s son, the film director Gustav Ucicky, whose mother was Klimt’s favourite model. He bought many of his father’s paintings, and two years ago his widow opened a foundation to house them. Honourably, she reached a settlement with Gertrud’s heirs when experts alerted her to the painting’s murky history; last Wednesday’s sale was the result.
As for the Malevich, the villains here are Stalin’s henchmen, not Hitler’s. The Russian took Suprematism, 18th Construction and a further 70 canvases to a show in Berlin in 1927, where they caused a sensation. However, the Soviet government suspected him of being recruited as a Western spy and forced him to return immediately. He left his art in a Berlin warehouse and was never allowed to reclaim it before dying, destitute, in 1935.
A friend of a friend, the architect Hugo Haring, hid some of Malevich’s paintings for safekeeping and after the war faked a deed claiming to own them. On that basis, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam bought them in 1958. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Malevich’s heirs in Russia pursued the museum through the courts, and after 10 years of legal wrangling a settlement in 2008 returned five paintings (including the one in the auction) to the heirs.
All’s well that ends well, then? Well, yes, for these three paintings — but if you have staggered thus far through this tangled tale you will appreciate that the idealistic injunction to “return art to its rightful owners” can often lead to extraordinary legal, diplomatic, archival and moral complications.
The number of Gurlitt-owned paintings with a disputed provenance is itself a matter of dispute; some experts say a few dozen, others say hundreds. Beyond them, however, are thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis and, in some cases, looted again by the Russians in 1945. Many will never resurface in public, let alone be returned to the families who owned them 80 years ago. Some will have been bought several times “in good faith”, often by renowned museums.
Excavating their murky histories has become a vast industry for art experts, fuelled by the astronomical prices they command at auction. Very rarely will the original artists or their heirs benefit from this global exercise in restitution.
The biggest winners, as always, will be the lawyers.
By Richard Morison
With many thanks to The Australian
July 14th is Klimt's birthday.
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