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Unclear Origins: Swiss Investigate Museum Collections for Nazi Looted Art

Transparency is not just a matter of current events because of Wikileaks’ war on corruption, it is now a newsworthy topic in the art world too. Last week, Switzerland released a commissioned report on looted art after Nazi ownership was suspected in the origins of paintings in the country’s museums. The Swiss government is pushing museum directors for more research and transparency in artwork provenance after considering the report as well as international art looting agreements. Where’s Julian Assange when you need him?

Los Angeles artist Lance Richlin argues that this movement for transparency was heralded in by the landmark 2006 case Republic of Austria v. Altmann that took Klimt’s now iconic Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I to the Supreme Court and beyond. When the Nazis approached the Bloch-Bauer residence demanding transfer of their private collection to their government, there were papers of transfer, but they were acquired under duress. “That’s what Randy proved.” Until E. Randol Schoenberg represented Maria Altmann (the niece of the painting’s Jewish intelligentsia muse who appeared on the right version of a will) and confronted a country with the relationship of Nazi art thefts to their national treasures, matter-of-fact documentation of the painting’s movement was taken at face value.

Randol Schoenberg, oil, 52x48." Lance Richlin

Richlin had the privilege of integrating Klimt’s immigrating legacy in his commissioned portrait of Schoenberg, grandson of the prominent Austrian composer. Said the artist, “What happened in my opinion is that Randy saved Adele from the Holocaust. If you think about it, that painting was one of the last victims. It was stolen from its Jewish owners and because of it it ended up in a national museum.”

Unlike the Klimt painted in a flat, art nouveau style with an emphasis on design, Richlin’s Adele has three-dimensional qualities that narrate the painting’s relationship with Schoenberg, emotions in the face and the hands translated into gratefulness for his rescuing her from the ghetto flames consuming the canvas. In the depiction that ultimately portrays prewar, wartime, and postwar eras, Richlin paints a sort of film noir, showing that the Austrian system’s claim to a legitimate transfer of property is overshadowed by a tainted underbelly.

“The thing is that people get killed while paintings get stolen. In his first conquest of Italy, the first thing Napoleon did was to fill the Louvre with Italian art,” said Richlin. The winners and losers of wars is an important consideration in the unique case of museums and their collections of artifacts. “While museums are custodians of artworks, at the same time they have the duty of returning paintings that were obviously stolen,” said Schoenberg, who is now serving as president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

So what is to become of paintings with such shady origins in the long run? “That is a very general question,” suggested Schoenberg, “So many variables are involved including who the heirs are, what jurisdiction is involved, the history of the painting.” The circumstances of this particular case rode on the language of a will and application of Austria’s various restitution laws.

If only every painting could be lucky enough to land a fate like that of Adele. Following the case, Altmann auctioned off the 1907 portrait to New York’s Lauder family for $135 million, making it the highest sum ever paid for a painting (now the #3 most expensive painting). It is now prominently displayed in the Neue Galerie in New York devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design, and has earned artistic homage by way of Richlin’s portraiture as well as the documentaries Adele’s Wish and Stealing Klimt.

Furthermore, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I will be on view as usual in the midst of the gallery’s newest opening in February, Birth of the Modern: Style and Identity in Vienna 1900. You can even see it for free on Fridays 6-8 thanks to a grant from Bloomberg.

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