Massive Restitution Auction


Carl Vogel of the New York Times discusses the planned 3-stage auction of a portion of a group of 170 old master paintings recently returned to the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker. Over at the ArtLaw blog, Donn Zaretsky has more.

Goudstikker was a prominent art dealer who quickly fled Amsterdam in 1940. His successors, Mrs. von Saher and her two daughters, all currently Connecticut residents, are planning an international exhibition of many of the works, including some which will not be part of the auction. Last year’s settlement with the Dutch government marked the culmination of an 8-year legal battle. The three auctions will be in April in New York, in July in London, and finally in November in Amsterdam. One work which could fetch between $3-5 million is this painting, Ferry Boat With Cattle on the River Vecht Near Nijenrode by Salomon van Ruysdael.

One of the heirs, Charlene von Saher said the traveling exhibition would reveal to the world “a historical injustice put right.” Certainly, Goudstikker lost his collection of art, and the restitution may be correcting a historical wrong. Make no mistake though, the 3 heirs of Goudstikker, their legal counsel, and Christie’s all stand to make a great deal of money. Money is at the heart of restitution, not righting historical wrongs. Consider the recent decision of a Dutch court to award Roelof van Holthe tot Echteen, a lawyer for the 3 heirs, a $10.4 million bank guarantee for his services in working for the restitution.

I notice that in the US, Lawrence Kaye represents von Saher and her two daughters in the dispute. Kaye, along with Howard Spiegler operate a prominent art restitution practice in New York. The two have become celebrities of sorts. I was contacted a couple of weeks ago by Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal regarding the reputation of the two in the legal and scholarly community. I’m afraid I was not able to offer her too much for her story. The two have published quite a bit, and have been part of some of the most important art and antiquities cases in recent years. If you want to initiate a restitution action, they are the lawyers to call.

However, I don’t really think that the law looks at individuals as champions of a cause. They are partisan representatives for their client. Their duty is to advocate zealously for their client. Sometimes this might put them on the right side, others it may put them in more objectionable territory. Perhaps it is just my view on this, but I do not consider them “heroes” as such. That said, I would jump at the chance to join their restitution practice after I complete my thesis.

I am of two minds about restitution litigation. On the one hand, I think we should certainly endorse a practice which remedies past historical injustices, and Nazi spoliation is certainly a grave injustice. However, restitution is not always a positive development. I discussed the Schiele litigation earlier this week, which is a very sad situation. Also, these works were displayed at museums in Amsterdam accessible to the public. Is there not a value in having the works displayed there? Also, what is the rationale for returning works from WWII, but not earlier conflicts. Why should the Louvre not be emptied of all the works looted by Napoleon?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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