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Is Too Much Being Made On (and of) Nazi Art?

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Germany and Austria, mindful of their post-war obligations to Jewish families, have traditionally supported efforts to restore paintings allegedly looted by the Nazis to their original and rightful owners. But the stratospheric prices fetched by some of those paintings in recent weeks — and the resultant fees collected by auction houses and the lawyers representing the owners — have given both countries second thoughts.

The works in question include four paintings by the Viennese master Gustav Klimt, and a famous Berlin street scene by the German expressionist Ernest Ludwig Kirchner sold earlier this month for nearly $50 million. So-called “restituted” art — pieces either directly looted by Nazis, or ones their owners were forced to sell for below-market value to escape Hitler’s regime — made up more than half of the record $491 million total sale at Christie’s in New York earlier this month. Last summer, Klimt’s most famous painting, the “Golden Adele,” which had hung in a Vienna museum for more than 60 years until being returned to a Los Angeles woman, fetched a record $135 million, the highest sum ever paid for a painting.

Such astronomical sums have prompted museum directors and government officials meeting in Berlin this week to openly question the motives of those claiming the artworks, and to ask whether all such claims are even justified. Berlin officials say that in addition to the recent sales, there are least 700 additional works of art now in German museums whose origins are being questioned. That means many of those could potentially be lost to private collectors, as has already happened with some of the works handed over by the Germans and Austrians. In a statement, Germany’s Culture Minster Bernd Neumann called for more “transparency” in the restitution process, which, according to museum directors, has become “flagrantly commercialized.”

Ludwig von Pufendorf, director of the Bruecke Museum Foundation in Berlin, was blunt. Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” had been the centerpiece of his museum’s collection for 26 years; now a poster of the painting hangs in its place. Following a claim initiated by a U.S. lawyer and a decision by the Berlin state government, the Bruecke museum last August handed it over to a London woman, Anita Halpin, the granddaughter of a German shoe manufacturer. Von Pufendorf argues that the painting should never have been restituted. He said it was sold in Germany in 1933, at which point it fetched the highest price ever for a Kirchner. The family did not sell because of pressure from the Nazis, he said. The new round of restitution claims, he argues, is being driven not by the heirs of Jewish victims but by lawyers and auction houses in search of the fees generated by such sales.

“It is now a business. It has nothing to do with moral restitution,” said Von Pufendorf, a lawyer. “The money has become more important than justice. The idea of restitution is correct, but it needs to be more just and less arbitrary.” Von Pufendorf is demanding an independent investigation into the decision to hand over the painting. Both the “Berlin Street Scene” and Klimt’s “Golden Adele” were bought by Ronald Lauder for his Neue Gallerie in New York. Several Klimts sold by Christies earlier this month also disappeared into private collections.

At the Berlin crisis gathering, German officials said they would organize meetings in coming weeks between major Jewish organizations, Germany’s leading museum directors and the heirs of families who lost the works of art, in order to restore the original spirit of fairness to the process. “Restitution must become more transparent, better coordinated and more irreproachable,” said Neumann. “On the one hand, Germany has a special responsibility towards Jewish families and the rights of the owners have to be respected,” a spokesman for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. “On the other, it is in the interest of the public to keep valuable national treasures on public display.”

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