Tuesday 28 October 2014

A tale of two Schieles

We have quite regularly discussed different cases of art stolen from Jewish families by the Germans during World War II on this blog. The one point they all have in common is that it is always difficult to predict the outcome. There is never a straightforward answer to whether the art will be returned.

A recent case illustrates the incongruent approaches to the cases. 

Two paintings by Austrian artist Egon Schiele are being auctioned next month. One by Christie’s and one by Sotheby’s.

Schiele's "Seated Woman with Bent Left Leg"
Schiele's "Town on the Blue River"

The result of the sales will, however, be very different for the family of Fritz Grünbaum, who once owned both pieces.

As reported by The New York Times:
Christie’s is selling Schiele’s 1910 watercolor “Town on the Blue River,” on Nov. 5 in conjunction with a restitution agreement that treats the work as looted art and provides compensation to Grünbaum’s heirs. 
Sotheby’s is selling a 1917 gouache and crayon work, “Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg,” on Nov. 4 under an arrangement that will not compensate the family. The auction house is relying on rulings by United States federal courts that found the family waited too long to file its claim and that there was insufficient evidence to conclude “Seated Woman” had been stolen.
The different approaches apparently stems from the fact that it all comes down to the word of a Swiss art dealer who says he bought dozens of Schieles from Grünbaum’s sister-in-law.

Grünbaum had accumulated a substantial art collection prior to 1938 when he was sent to Dachau and all his art was seized. His collection included 81 Schieles, however, it is not clear whether these two paintings were part of it.

After the collection was seized, it was moved to a storage depot in Vienna. Grünbaum died in 1941, and his wife, Elisabeth, died in 1942, in a concentration camp.
 The New York Times continues:
The next time any of the works from Grünbaum’s collection surfaced on the art market was in the 1950s, when the Swiss dealer, Eberhard Kornfeld, sold some. Mr. Kornfeld later said he had purchased them from Elisabeth Grünbaum’s sister, Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl, who died in 1979. Mr. Kornfeld produced correspondence with Ms. Lukacs-Herzl, tax stamps and other documentation to support his account. 
Jonathan Petropoulos, the former art research director for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, has called Mr. Kornfeld’s story suspicious, in part because the documents carry varied spellings of the name “Mathilde” in penciled signatures and because he did not identify her as the source of the works until decades after her death. In any case, Mr. Petropoulos, who was hired by the Grünbaum family legal team, argues that Ms. Lukacs-Herzl did not have title to the art because she was never declared Grünbaum’s heir by an Austrian court, as required.  
So, on the one side Sotheby’s is taking Kornfeld's word that he acquired the paintings lawfully. On the other, Christies's acknowledge that the position is complicated and therefore will treat the painting as looted art and compensate Grünbaum’s heirs.

While the lack of consistency is not surprising, it is nevertheless disappointing particularly since it is very likely that the paintings came from the same collection. And while there are several organisations that are still working to right wrongs that took place over 70 years ago, as those events become ever more distant it becomes even more likely that the disparities will only increase.

Source: The New York Times, 24 October 2014

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