Christie’s: Yo, European Museums, we’re coming for your artworks!

It used to be back in the good old days of Duveen & Co. that the insatiable NY market would have top artworks smuggled out of Europe in false-bottom suitcases. Now Christie’s has struck upon a new tactic: providing legal support to heirs with restitution claims for artworks in European public collections. Since such procedures can take decades, it’s an expensive investment of resources for the auction house, but the strategy is now starting to pay enormous dividends.

Auction records for three Central European expressionists have all been set by restituted art works:
kirchner-street_scene_berlin-c1913.jpg schiele-krumau2-c1916.jpg klimt-portrait-of-adele-bloch-bauer2-c1913.jpg
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street Scene-Berlin ($38 million); Egon Schiele’s View of Krumau ($24 million); Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II ($87 million)

Furthermore, the world’s (briefly) most expensive painting was sold for $135 million to Ronald Lauder and that also came off the walls of Vienna’s Upper Belvedere.

klimt-portrait-of-adele-bloch-bauer-c1907.jpg
Gustav Klimt. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I c.1907. Briefly the world’s most valuable canvas until a bunch of drippy paint surpassed it.

Now all of these works, except for the Schiele, were sold through Christies. And to make the scenario even more incestuous, we should point out that Lauder also bought the Kirchner for his Neue Galerie, but that the $135 mil that he supposedly paid for the Adele I is a bit teleological. It turns out that that price was chosen as the value of artworks that Lauder would put up for sale in compensation, and well… he actually put up a bunch of not very pretty Schieles and they haven’t been selling so well.

schiele-prozession-c1911.jpg
Not gonna be able to pay for Adele up there with these ladies here. Schiele’s Prozession c.1911 failed to sell.

Christie’s worked very closely with the Maria Altmann (niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer) to help bring about the restitution of her 5 Klimts, with Stephen Lash, chairman of Christie’s Americas, sitting next to Mrs. Altmann at the Supreme Court hearings in 2004. Now the heirs case was far from iron-clad. For one, Adele herself had willed the paintings to the Austrian State before her death in 1925. Furthermore, the surviving Bloch-Bauers had signed over the Klimts to the Austrians in 1948, in exchange for being allowed to export a bunch of Waldmüllers and Danhausers that nobody wants these days anyhow. But lawyers for the Altmanns, particularly E. Randol Schoenberg (as in grandson of “12-Tone” Arnold) argued that Adele herself, if she’d seen the Anschluss, would never have granted her paintings to the state. But this is hardly the flimsiest of restitution arguments that have been successful these days.

The record-setting Kirchner had been sold by Alfred Hess, a bankrupt shoe manufacturer hard hit by the Depression, some time around 1936 and it eventually ended up in Die Brucke Museum in Berlin. Point is that, throughout the 30s, the Hess family had been selling their paintings as a means to support themselves. Nonetheless, lobbyists for the heirs with backing from Christie’s were able to convince the Berlin Senate that the painting had been sold because of hardship brought on by the Nazis, and to return it to the Hesses before a protest movement could effectively counter the action.

The scale of the enterprise has reached a new level now with the arrival of the Goudstikker collection of 170 old masters that have been pryed out of Dutch Museums by the relentless heirs of the dealer Jacques Goudstikker. The IHT article describes the unfortunate tale:

The story of Jacques Goudstikker — and his heirs’ eight-year legal battle to wrest some of his paintings from the Dutch government — is a complex tale of scholarship and tenacity. Goudsticker, his wife and their son fled the Netherlands on May 14, 1940, as the city was invaded by the Nazis, leaving behind his gallery business and 1,400 art works.

A second-generation art dealer, Goudstikker was unable to take any of his prized paintings with him but he did carry a small black notebook containing meticulous records of more than 1,000 works in his inventory. That notebook, which his wife retrieved after he died in a fall on the blacked-out freighter carrying them to safety, became crucial decades later when his widow and son began searching for the collection.

Many of the best works at one point were owned by Hermann Göring. After the war, nearly 300 paintings from the Goudstikker collection were returned by the Allies to the Dutch and, despite the family’s protests, placed in the national collections. But in February 2006 the Dutch government agreed to return 202 paintings it had recovered after the war.

An interesting little subtext also arises from the story:

Roelof van Holthe tot Echten, a lawyer, had asked the courts to block the release of the art until he was paid the fee he claims for helping to recover the art.

A judge ordered von Saher to put down a $10.4 million bank guarantee as a security deposit until the lawyer’s fee is settled by the court.

Asked if Christie’s was advancing her the $10.4 million, Kaye replied: “Clearly she’s getting the money from somewhere. I can’t discuss her financial arrangement with Christie’s.”

What might we deduce here?:

  • Lawyers (on both sides of the Atlantic) are seriously cashing in on this kind of activity;
  • Christie’s is advancing the legal fees in exchange for being able auction museum-quality art work.
  • Christie’s strategy makes perfect sense in a buoyant art market where, in fact, very little good new stuff was otherwise being churned up, attributed to a shortage of the 3 Ds (Death, Divorce, Debt).The only way to get record-smashing pieces is to take them away from museums. 20 years ago, placement in a public collection was considered entombing for a work, meaning it would never see the light of the market again. Such conventional wisdom has rapidly come undone, with France selling renting its art to Arabs, the Toledo Art Museum unloading an unwanted Sisley, and let’s not forget all those Schieles that Lauder’s Neue Galerie is trying to dump on the market.

    Here’s why trafficking in museum art is good business:

  • It comes relatively cheap, even with the lawyers’s bills;
  • Museum placement is the highest point getter in the Kunstkompass;
  • Public collections define the canon;
  • Within any artist’s oeuvre, publicly displayed works serve as type-specimen of what their work is supposed to look like.
  • A recent article by the Telegraph estimates that 50% of the take from Christies huge November 2006 Modernist/Impressionist sale came from restituted art. The way Christie’s juggernaut is proceeding it’s only a matter of time before they dislodge four El Grecos out of Budapest’s Szepművészeti Museum. Sooner or later, though, they’ll have to turn their attention to the worlds biggest treasure trove of unrestituted art, which is in Russia, but that may be a tougher nut to crack, since Christie’s strategy only works if the defendant gives a shit about what the US Supreme Court thinks, which Putin’s Russia doesn’t.

    Klimt portrait sells for a record $135 million [IHT]
    How Christie’s kept top spot over Sotheby’s in 2006 sales [IHT]
    An art trove, looted by the Nazis and recovered, is going on sale [IHT]
    Kirchner Painting At Heart of Restitution Dispute [DW]
    Nazi loot a goldmine for auction houses [Telegraph.co.uk]

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    3 Responses to Christie’s: Yo, European Museums, we’re coming for your artworks!

    1. […] to get the paintings out of Europe and over to the unquenchable NY market. Recently, that has meant fronting legal fees for WWII-era restitution claims. But now we hear of a new method, which we might […]

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