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An Update on Holocaust Restitution Cases

An Update on Holocaust Restitution Cases

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Published by Menachem Wecker
Review by Menachem Wecker of Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow, Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice (New York: Vendome Press, 2010. 256 pp.) and Peter C. Sutton, Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008. 224 pp.) in IMAGES 5, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011.
Review by Menachem Wecker of Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow, Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice (New York: Vendome Press, 2010. 256 pp.) and Peter C. Sutton, Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008. 224 pp.) in IMAGES 5, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011.

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Published by: Menachem Wecker on Mar 01, 2012
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 An Update on Holocaust Restitution Cases
 While recognizing the justice being served in thereturn of masterpieces looted or forcibly sold dur-ing World War II to heirs of the Jewish galleryowners and collectors whose walls the paintingsonce adorned, it is still possible to lament both thenarrative being conveyed about the Holocaust—the very wealthy losing material objects which, howeverrare, do not remotely approach the cost in humanlives—and the tragedy of the works being removedfrom the public eye and sold for staggering prices toprivate collectors. While this is an academic review,it is important, in this discussion, to pay particularattention to popular media, because, for better orfor worse, public discourse has affected politicaldiscourse. On whichever side of the restitution tug-of-war one
nds oneself, public perception can bea very powerful force. Museums, even if they arestrictly speaking acting appropriately on the basisof the letter of the law, may come under
re inmainstream publications for underappreciating thespirit of the law, while heirs trying to reclaim works,if they are not careful, can quickly be painted in themedia as greedy philistines.Much ink has been spilled lately over what isoften front page news about works and collectionsbeing restored to heirs and the inevitable courtcases surrounding those returns. Robin Cembalest,Executive Editor of ARTnews, has, over the pastfew years, consistently produced valuable investi-gative stories about all aspects of the restitutioncases, most notably the high pro
le story of Maria Altmann (1916–2011), a niece of collector AdeleBloch-Bauer (1881–1925), who successfully securedthe return from the Austrian government of 
 vepaintings by Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), which hadbeen stolen from Bloch-Bauer’s husband Ferdinand(after Adele’s death). Although most of the literature on the subjectdoes not address Talmudic principles, one of themajor factors in rabbinic literature, particularly theTalmud, in the legal calculus that determines whenlost and stolen properties must be returned to theoriginal owners is the concept of 
(e.g. BabaMetziya 21a), roughly “despair.” If the originalowner loses hope of ever securing the object’s return,the object, in certain cases, belongs to the currentowner. Sometimes, however, the objects in questionare so valuable—even priceless—that they are noteasy to forget. Can one ever forget a collection of more than a thousand valuable paintings, such as theone that the Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker(1897–1940) lost to the Nazis? Jewish collectorsand art dealers, whose troves of Rembrandts andPissarros were looted by the Nazis or forcefully soldat far below market prices, were not about to forgettheir collections. In many instances, their heirs arestill
ghting in court to retrieve the works, whetherfrom public or private collections, despite the U.S.State Department-supported 1998 WashingtonConference on Holocaust-Era Assets and the 2009Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets andRelated Issues.The story that emerges from Melissa Müller andMonika Tatzkow’s
 Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice
and PeterSutton’s
 Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of JacquesGoudstikker 
is one of very wealthy collectors, whoselavish lifestyles were dashed to pieces almost literallyover night. Müller and Tatzkow note (205) that Louis von Rothschild (1882–1955), after the death of hisfather Baron Albert von Rothschild (1844–1911),who collected works by, amongst others, the Dutchlandscape painter Meindert Hobbema (1638–1709),was asked about the value of his palace. “‘Howmuch is St. Stephen’s Cathedral worth?’” he wasrumored to respond. Writing in an afterword, Gunnar Schnabel, alawyer who co-wrote
 Nazi Looted Art: Art RestitutionWorld-Wide
(Berlin: Proprietas-Verlag, 2007) withTatzkow, notes that many books and articles on Naziart looting have appeared since the mid-1990s, butthousands of works still appear in state museumsand private collections. “It is still usually up to theclaimants themselves to take the initiative,” Schnabelwrites, “to undertake costly and time-insensitiveresearch, to conduct restitution negotiations that maydrag on for years, or to
le a lawsuit in order to atleast partially rectify the prolongation of injustices
Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow,
 Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and theQuest for Justice
. New York: Vendome Press, 2010. 256 pp.Peter C. Sutton,
 Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker 
. New Haven,Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008. 224 pp.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011
5 Also available online brill.nl/ima DOI: 10.1163/187180011X604553
committed decades ago”. Schnabel applauds the“incremental steps” that are being taken, but stressesthe urgency of the work ahead: “Numerous casesaround the world remain unresolved.”
However important Müller and Tatzkow’sresearch is—and it’s hard to feel anything butsympathy for the victims and their heirs—TylerGreen, writing in the
Wall Street Journal 
is not whollyimpressed:
Though the authors deftly summarize restitution effortsregarding each particular collector or family’s artworks,they uncover little new information, and the vignettesabout the art that their subjects owned are cursoryand narrowly informed. Most entries seem designedto rouse a sympathetic emotional response—reducing their subjects to a sentimental, what-wonderful-people-they-were sameness—rather than to present a broad view of Jewish participation in Europe’s 20th-centuryavant garde.
But Green reserves his most passionate criticismfor
 New York Times
critic Michael Kimmelman, whoaccused Altmann of “cashing in” by selling theKlimt paintings she obtained from the Austriangovernment in 2006, instead of donating them toa museum. “A sensible reaction to this happy newsmight have been to celebrate that the heirs were
nally, belatedly free to do with their propertywhatever they liked,” writes Green, but Kimmelmancriticized Altmann instead. “If such a prominentobserver can still deride great Jewish patrons of thearts as greedy collectors, any attempt to providea fuller understanding of who they really were iswelcome,” Green says.Lest anyone accuse Green of taking Kimmelmanout of context, the latter’s response in the
 New York Times
begins, “How sad—if unsurprising—to hearthat the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauerare indeed cashing in, as planned, and selling fourKlimts at Christie’s in November.”
But Green’scriticism of the layout and images in
 Lost Lives, Lost  Art 
 —that they “often seem a bit like pages torn fromVanity Fair”—ought to extend to the rest of the work as well, and indeed to Holocaust studies in general. All too often, unfortunately, the importance of themessage—and there are few subjects more essentialand important than Holocaust memory—comes ata great expense of the medium. When one tries toevaluate the signi
cance of a painting of Auschwitz,it is dif 
cult to cling to the same critical vocabularythat one uses to contextualize Monet’s water lilies.“I’m in a life and death struggle,” Archie Rand toldme and art critic Richard McBee in a conversationat the Yeshiva University Museum in 2004, in whichhe stubbornly insisted his paintings are Jewish artprecisely because he authored them that way. “Whatdo I care about a speci
c red?” Rand’s works standon their own, but his statement about a change inperspective and vocabulary when one is wrestling with issues larger than
oral arrangements anddonor portraits is a vital one. Art, even if it tacklesthe most terrifying and terrible of subjects, needsto be addressed as art. Choosing an ambitious— even necessarily elusive—subject matter cannot bea shortcut and a smokescreen that evades authenticcritical analysis.Müller and Tatzkow’s
fteen chapters tell of immensely wealthy collectors who tried in vain toprotect their collections. On the one hand, FerdinandBloch-Bauer wrote to the painter Oskar Kokoschkaon April 2, 1941, “They took everything from me inVienna. I was left without even a memento” (156).But the book doesn’t really respond to the positionarticulated by Salomon de Rothschild (1744–1855)to his younger brother James (Jakob) (1792–1868).“Too conspicuous, Jakob!” he wrote. “By showing off  your wealth, you’re stirring up anti-Semitism.”That is not to say that Jewish collectors are inany way guilty because of their
nancial success.However much some of them showed off theirwealth, they had the right to do so, and many of their peers of other faith groups certainly displayedtheir wealth with unrestricted glee. But it is a missedopportunity that neither Müller and Tatzkow’s
 Lost  Lives, Lost Art 
nor Sutton’s
seriously enter-tains the possibility that there is a tradeoff involvedin the restitutions. It might very well be the case that justice is served if and when every work is returnedto heirs of its previous owners, but that justicecomes at a price. There is no Solomonic possibilityof divvying the paintings up and sending one part
Gunnar Schnabel and Monika Tatzkow,
 Nazi Looted Art: Art  Restitution World-Wide
(Berlin: Proprietas-Verlag, 2007), 237.
Tyler Green, “Patrons of the Arts, Victims of the Nazis,”
Wall Street Journal 
(October 30, 2010).
Michael Kimmelman, “Klimts Go to Market; MuseumsHold Their Breath,”
 New York Times
(September 19, 2006).
137to the rightful owners and the other part to publiccollections, but one cannot help but dream aboutsuch a compromise.The closest Müller and Tatzkow ever get toadmitting that the subject at hand is far morecomplex than a simple black-and-white transferenceof ownership of artworks is in the beginning of theirintroduction, where they argue:
The origins of a painting have always been a factor inits value on the art market. If it comes straight fromthe hands of a recognized connoisseur or a famous
gure, that is tantamount to a seal of approval andmakes the work all the more coveted, because thepersonality of the collector is re
ected in the historyof the piece. It is another story entirely in the case of looted art, and especially when it comes to its restitu-tion. In such instances, a work’s provenance is oftenmentioned only in passing, or not at all. . . . Instead,emotionally charged discussions are launched aboutthe “gaping spaces on museum walls,” and a hue andcry is raised about the “exorbitant prices” paid on thepresent-day art market (7).
It is impossible to understand the restitution cases,the authors argue, without having a good sense of the biographies of the collectors and dealers whoused to own the works.The authors certainly share anecdotes and somebackground about their subjects. But as a compari-son of their Goudstikker chapter with Peter Sutton’scatalog reveals, their narrative is a bit sensationalist. Where Müller and Pieter den Hollander’s essaycredits (218) the twenty-two-year-old Goudstikkerwith entering the family business, becoming a third-generation collector, and “immediately set[ting]about transforming it in accordance with his ownideas,” focusing “exclusively on dealing in ‘old pic-tures of all periods,’ and convince[ing] his father tomove the business to Amsterdam,” Sutton notes (19)that Goudstikker entered the
eld and “almost imme-diately introduced distinctive changes,” including bringing “an increasingly varied international offer-ing” to the gallery and its publications, reproducing artists’ signatures in catalogs, numbering and person-ally signing catalogs, and adding a Goudstikker wordmark to gallery publications. Whether the changeswere ‘immediate’ or ‘almost immediate’—bothaccounts seem likely to be romanticizations, andboth feature oddly similar uses of the same adverb“immediate”—Sutton accounts for the changes, atleast in part, as being “in response to alterations inthe economic and political fortunes of Amsterdam,which became an increasingly vital internationalcenter for the art trade in the 1920s.” Whereas Jacques’ father Eduard Goudstikker haddealt mostly to Dutch clients, because World WarI had limited international trade, Jacques came of gallery-dealing age in a very different Amsterdam,with an expanded market “at the expense of theGerman market, which contracted during the
nan-cially strained years following World War I.” Jacques’interest in a wider range of periods of art history,which Müller and den Hollander seem to credit toa superior and forward-thinking grasp of his trade,in fact, according to Sutton, can be attributed to Jacques’ studies under Leiden University Professor Willem Martin, a Seventeenth Century Dutchspecialist, and Professor W. Vogelsang in Utrecht,“who introduced him to wider
elds of study anda more aesthetic assessment of art,” particularly“early Netherlandish to German and French Gothic,Italian Renaissance, seventeenth and eighteenth-century French, as well as . . . European art of thenineteenth century.”Müller and den Hollander’s larger-than-lifeGoudstikker, who is of course “in his day . . . themost successful art dealer in the Netherlands” (217),brought “previously unknown Italian artists of the
fteenth and sixteenth centuries, as well as earlierGerman and French paintings” (218) to Amsterdam,and “in so doing awakened and shaped an entirelynew taste in art.” Goudstikker’s talent “soon beganto be recognized outside his home country,” and he“swapped ideas with leading art historians and artdealers throughout the world.” In addition:
In the two decades of Goudstikker’s in
uence, Amsterdam grew to be a hub of the international artmarket; sooner or later, anyone looking for
rst-classold masters would come into contact with this young  visionary.Following his advice, numerous museums movedaway from what was then the standard practice of presenting artworks in a purely documentary way,attempting to cover all established art movements(218).
 At Goudstikker’s instigation, however, museums “ven-tured into specialized collections and a much moreemotional style of presentation.” One wonders aboutother museum collections, like the Frick Collection,bequeathed in 1919 (the year Goudstikker turnedtwenty-two), and the Isabella Stewart GardnerMuseum, which opened in Boston in 1903, whenGoudstikker was six—sixteen years before he became

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