Eric Gibson: Selling art once stolen by the Nazis sparks controversy

Roundup: Talking About History

Christie's recently announced that, in November, it will sell four paintings by the early-20th-century Austrian modernist Gustav Klimt, works whose combined estimated value is between $93 million and $140 million. The news has caused a sensation, and not only because of the greatness of the art and the size of the price tag.

These Klimts, three landscapes and a portrait, are part of a group of five turned over to Maria Altmann by the Austrian government earlier this year. After a seven-year campaign by Ms. Altmann, 90, Austrian officials finally acknowledged her legal right to ownership. It was, of course, the confiscatory practices of the Third Reich that had disrupted a continuous line of family ownership and had made Ms. Altmann's claim an emblem of postwar property-rights justice.

Ms. Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, had originally owned the five paintings, two of which are portraits of his wife, Adele, who died in 1925. Bloch-Bauer had fled his native Austria in 1938 following the Anschluss, whereupon the Nazis seized his property. Beginning in the early 1940s, the paintings entered Austrian museums, there to remain until this year. Bloch-Bauer spent most of the war in Switzerland, dying in 1945.
Soon after recovering the paintings last winter, Ms. Altmann lent them to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then to the Neue Galerie, a New York City museum for modern German and Austrian art founded by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. (The paintings are still on display there, until Oct. 9.) She also sold the most magnificent work of the five, the shimmering gold portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," to Mr. Lauder for the eye-popping sum of $135 million.

The reaction to that first sale focused on Mr. Lauder, who had put his five-year-old institution on the map with the acquisition of a major piece of 20th-century art. The reaction to the upcoming Christie's sale has been, well, different.

New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman inveighed against the sale. Ms. Altmann and her relatives, he declared, were "cashing in," turning a "story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust" into "yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market." The family should give the works away, donating "one or more" to a public institution, or negotiate "a private sale to a museum at a price below the auction house estimates." He even came close to stating that Ms. Altmann's museum loans weren't a sign of her generosity but a kind of profiteering, since "the museums provided presale publicity of a sort that no auction house could organize."...

Long-denied heirs like Ms. Altmann should be allowed to do as they please with their property once they have recovered it. Isn't that, so to speak, the whole point? The "story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust," to borrow Mr. Kimmelman's phrase, surely includes the right of the descendants of Nazi-era victims to exercise the freedom their families were denied.

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