Failed art dealer Julian Agnew takes to the letters column of the Financial Times to make a plea for cutting off restitution claims. Unfortunately, Mr. Agnew’s argument buries some very serious matters in a plea for some public right to art. Throughout, Agnew glosses over the enormity of the cause of these restitution claims, at one point suggesting the claims are no different from claims that might be made against the Louvre for works acquired during the Napoleonic Wars.
By suggesting that the proceeds of these restitution sales should not go to the lawyers who successfully pursued these claims without compensation or that the heirs ought to donate the proceeds to charity, Agnew intimates that those seeking restitution are illegitimate. (See the bolded section of the quote below.)
None of this would be necessary if the museums who hold these works had made a good faith effort to find the heirs or resolve their provenance. They were forced to confront the despicable history of the works’ acquisition by the very lawyers Agnew now disparages. For example, look at the case of the Max Liebermann painting , Two Riders, discovered in the Gurlitt hoard and sold for a record $2.9m price recently at Sotheby’s in London. Here’s Peter Toren, sone of the man who spent most of his adult life searching for the works stolen from the home of his uncle, David Friedmann:
Two Riders has meant so much more to me than simply its sale. It allowed me to reclaim part of my family’s history stolen by the Nazis. I learned things that I had never known including more about my father’s courage to succeed in the face of all odds. I now understand to the extent possible, what it meant to be a Jew in Nazi Germany. We have only begun, but will continue to search for other stolen David Friedmann paintings, however long it takes.
Agnew’s call for a close to these claims would have prevented Toren and his father from seeing some small portion of justice done. And, as the Gurlitt case so clearly demonstrates, resolving disputed provenance remains a low priority for the very institutions Agnew seeks to shield.
The reasons that nearly all restituted works of art are sold are twofold; first because of multiple family ownership and secondly because of the circumstances of their restitution. While the first may be a good reason, the second is not. Since 1990 and the end of communism in eastern Europe, a whole trade of researchers, aided by lawyers, has grown up which seeks to notify the descendants of Nazi-era owners and put forward restitution claims. The basis of the deal with the claimant is that the researchers and lawyers take a very considerable percentage of the sale proceeds of restituted items. This means that their auction is inevitable. This is not an attractive side of the art market, being comparatively close to ambulance chasing.
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?