Very early this morning the artwork at the 5Pointz was whitewashed over at the urging of Jerry and David Walkoff, the landlords of the building. 5 Pointz has become a canvas for Graffiti artists. Last week a federal judge in Brooklyn denied a temporary injunction petition by artists seeking to save the building from demolition.
In an interesting twist, this whitewashing may be considered an act of intentional mutilation and destruction, and may in fact make VARA claims for these artists more likely to succeed—particularly if the intentional destruction of these works can be shown to prejudice the honor and reputation of specific individuals. The whitewashing was certainly done in a direct way to preclude further legal action, but it may have only emboldened opponents and demonstrated some really egregious bad faith on the part of the building owners.
“Allowing the Estate to retain the tablet based on a spoils of war doctrine would be fundamentally unjust.”
So held New York’s highest court in a ruling today ordering the return of this Ancient gold antiquity to Germany. This was the second appeal to resolve the dispute over this small tablet. In an earlier probate proceeding, the estate was allowed to keep the tablet on the grounds that the German museum had waited too long to make its claim. The German claimant was the Vorderasiatisches Museum, a branch of the Pergamon in Berlin.
Here’s the story of the tablet based on the court’s ruling. Its a 3,000-year-old gold tablet which dates to the 13th Century BCE. The tablet was found before the first World War by German archaeologists near the Ishtar temple in Ashur, Iraq. The tablet was in the inventory of a Berlin Museum starting in 1926. The Museum was closed during the second World War, and its collection was put in storage. But in 1945 the tablet was discovered to be missing.
The tablet “resurfaced” in 2003 when its possessor, Riven Flamenbaum, passed away and his daughter and executor of his estate Hannah listed a “coin collection” in the accounting. But her brother Israel objected to the accounting and asserted that what he described as a “gold wafer” was an ancient Assyrian artifact and properly belonged to a German Museum.
The court opinion is silent on how Flamenbaum may have acquired the tablet. The story according to the family was that the elder Flamenbaum, an Auschwitz holocaust survivor, acquired the tablet from a Russian soldier in exchange for cigarettes. Hannah Flamenbau is quoted by the AP with respect to her claim that “The thought was if we’re allowed to retain it, put it on display in one of the museums, whether down here in Battery Park City in Manhattan or even in Israel. Use it as a way to talk about the Holocaust … and my parents’ story”.
The estate argued that it should retain the tablet because of the doctrine of laches, an equitable legal principle that essentially says it would be unjust to let a claimant wait this long to make a claim. However, the New York Court of Appeals held that though there may have been a delay, it was not unreasonable in light of the circumstances, and importantly no injustice would be done to the estate. Especially considering there was an indication that Flamenbaum knew the tablet rightfully belonged to a German museum.
The other claim was that when Russia invaded Germany, Russia acquired artifacts like the tablet from Germany as spoils of war, and thus the German Museum could no longer hold good title. This legal argument conflicts with the steady stream of domestic and international principles of the last 150 years. You cannot invade a nation and strip it of its works of art. And so, this unlikely dispute which arose out of a dispute between siblings who lost their father results in the return of this gold tablet to Germany.
Some of the dust has settled after the frenzied early reports about the cache of art found in a Munich apartment. We can start to see what the discovery of all this art means. The Art Newspaper has the best English-language account I’ve seen of the press conference yesterday. We know that German authorities seized 121 framed works; and 1,285 unframed works. The search of the apartment occurred in February 2012—not in 2011 as many initial reports indicated. Cornelius Gurlitt also owns a home in Salzburg, Austria, and his immediate location is not known. The authorities in Augsburg invite individuals who may be seeking the return of art to contact the prosecutor’s office there.
There has been a great deal of criticism levied against German officials. But I’ve yet to see any wrongdoing on their part. An 18 month delay does not strike me as unjustified given the enormity of this recovery and the difficult task uncovering the history of all these works. As unpleasant as it may be, we have to remember that Mr. Gurlitt has rights, and nations cannot just strip him of his property rights. It appears as if original owners may be able to be tracked down for much of this art. But for art spoliated during World War II, there was a wide spectrum of art that was taken—from outright theft on one end to sales under duress, to even some fair transactions at the other. Its also possible that Gurlitt may have good title to a substantial portion of this art. The German authorities are likely examining how best to navigate this difficult issue. If it appears like they were misleading or held ulterior motives, then criticism is certainly warranted, but I’ve yet to see it.
Rather than release a list of the works and their images, German authorities have made the decision to task one individual, Meike Hoffmann, an art historian, to research potential claimants. Reinhard Nemetz, the chief prosecutor in Augsburg said the list won’t be published as:
We would prefer to have people coming to us to tell us which pictures they are missing than making them public and having 10 claimants for each one…
So rather than a host of conflicting claims, prosecutors can match existing claimants.
It may also be wise to temper some of the claims about the value of all this art. the AP spoke with Christoph Zuschlag, an expert on so-called ‘degenerate art’:
We need to see whether these were originals or prints…
Continuing that of the 21,000 pieces of ‘degenerate’ art which were seized, 2/3 were prints. Only 1/3 were originals.
That is an appropriately cautious way to think about all this art I think. Because one of the most interesting things this discovery may signal is how much we might be mistaken about the Nazi’s and ‘degenerate’ art. As Jonathan Jones writes:
Gurlitt’s cache reveals that many assumptions about the Nazis and art are simply untrue. The Degenerate Art exhibition was real enough – but did it really mean the Nazis hated modern art? It is because we take this for granted that no one has been searching for lost “degenerate” works such as those in the flat in Munich. Some works from the Entartete Kunst exhibition, many seized from once-progressive German museums, were sold abroad afterwards. Others have vanished. As the war began and Nazi racial policies became ever more explicit, more modern and pre-modern works were seized or bought for a pittance from Jewish owners. Much was destroyed. Or was it?
The recovery rate for stolen art may take a dramatic shift towards original owners. The German magazine Focus has broken the story of an incredible find. One of the most remarkable discoveries of stolen art that I can think of. A reported 1,500 works of art by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Klee, and others was stored in an apartment in Berlin for years. The works were likely spoliated by Nazis during the 1930s-40s.
When authorities executed a search warrant they found the works stacked in a dark room in a flat in this apartment block in Munich. They were hidden there by Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, who was the son of a Munich art dealer.
The works were discovered after tax authorities executed a search warrant of Gurlitt’s apartment in 2011. He was stopped on a train bound for Switzerland with 9,000 euros in cash, and had plans to deposit the money in undeclared Swiss accounts. When the authorities searched his home they found what must be one of the largest ever single recoveries of stolen art.
An interesting dispute is unfolding involving this terrific Klimt. It involves a sale of the work which was given at far below the market price in exchange for the export of other works of art. From the NYT:
The gold-painted frieze was owned by the Lederer family, wealthy Austrian Jews who were important patrons of Klimt’s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, the family escaped to Switzerland, but its extensive art collection was seized and its once formidable industrial empire bankrupted. Many of the family’s valuable works, including 18 Klimts, were destroyed in the final days of the war.
The mammoth frieze survived and was formally returned to Erich Lederer, the family heir, after the war. But there was a hitch. The Austrian government would grant him export licenses for his other artworks only if he sold the “Beethoven Frieze” to the state at a cut-rate price, Mr. Lederer’s heirs say.
In a 1972 letter to Bruno Kreisky, then the Austrian chancellor, Mr. Lederer complained about what he considered government extortion, writing that officials were “trying to force me to my knees” and thinking “why won’t he finally die, this LEDERER!”
Mr. Lederer finally agreed to sell the frieze to the government in 1973 for $750,000: half of its estimated worth at the time, according to an evaluation by Christie’s. Since 1986, it has been on view at the turn-of-the-century Secession gallery, where it was first shown at a 1902 exhibition named after Klimt’s breakthrough art movement.
Georg Graf, a law professor and restitution expert at the University of Salzburg, who is supporting the family’s claim, said, “While the Austrian Republic did formally return the artwork after the war, it ultimately forced Erich Lederer to sell it back in old age by upholding the export ban.”
The Art Loss Register and Julian Radcliffe got the New York Times treatment last week. I think it was an accurate portrayal of the ALR and its role in the art market. I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in many of the same art crime tropes that some are unable to resist in a piece like this. Things like Radcliffe’s physical appearance, his almost spy-novel backstory, and other aspects distracted me from some of the good reporting in the piece.
The main point holds true I think, that nobody really loves the ALR, but they do perform a service for the Art Market. Much of the criticism lobbied against the organization is entirely justified, but many critics point to the fact that the ALR not only is a database, but also acts as a stolen art recovery service, in exchange for a sizable portion of the value of the work. That has often put them in an uneasy position.
For example the incident involving a Norman Rockwell painting, ‘Russian Schoolroom’ is discussed:
Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer who became entangled in a Register hunt for a Norman Rockwell painting, has sued the company twice, contending that it harassed her for years in its zeal to collect a fee for recovering the work.
Mrs. Cutler had clear title to the painting in 1989, when she sold it to the director Steven Spielberg. Later it was mistakenly listed as stolen by the F.B.I. and, consequently, the Register, which tried for years to recover it.
Mrs. Cutler said that the Register pursued her even after company officials had reason to know she had done nothing wrong. Neither of her suits against the company succeeded, and she is still angry.
“They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path,” she said.
The Register has characterized its dispute with Mrs. Cutler as a misunderstanding based on faulty information it received from the F.B.I. and others that suggested that the painting was stolen.
I have heard many similar arguments and criticisms of the ALR. Dorothy King relates a similar example from last year.
Have any experience dealing with the ALR that you’d like to share? Comment below or drop me a note.