Germany Unhappy with the State of Restitution

Apparently, the German Government is considering its options about how best to deal with art sold by or confiscated from Jews under the Nazis the Sydney Morning Herald reports today. This comes in the wake of the record sale at Christie’s last week, in which a number of returned works
helped fuel the market. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has summoned culture ministers and museum directors to discuss overhauling the restitution law. This was a predictable development, especially considering the fabulous sums of money these works are getting on the market.

I postulated last week, that something does not quite seem right about the heirs of these works profitting so handsomely off works which had been hanging in German and Austrian museums. Another factor which may be fueling these discussions, is the news that the City of Berlin is in dire financial straits, and may have to sell some of its cultural buildings or works. When Berlin was essentially two cities, it maintained separate concert halls and museums, but since reunification, the city has too many cultural institutions for its budget. This museum is the Sammlung Berggruen, which houses many impressionist and post-impressionist works.

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

Sale of Picasso’s "The Absinthe Drinker" may be halted

Christie’s may have a difficult time breaking the single-auction record today. The Art Newspaper reports the auction house is considering removing the work from the sale. Andrew Lloyd Webber was attempting to sell the work, estimated at $60 million, with the proceeds going to charity. The work, from Picasso’s blue period, was also the subject of a Federal District Court Case, dismissed yesterday.

The dismissal has not been published yet on Lexis, but the New York Times has an overview of the claimant’s case. Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed the claims because the federal law dealing with Holocaust restitution was inapplicable in this case. I’m not an expert on holocaust litigation, so I’m not sure which law the NYT is talking about. Apparently, the claimant has a case in New York state court however.

The claims seem tenuous to me at first blush. The plaintiff, Mr. Schoeps, is the heir of Paul von Mendelssohn-Barthold, a wealthy Berlin banker and art collector. He was forced to sell all his paintings as a result of Nazi persecution. The Nazi’s didn’t actually take the painting, but they seized his assets so that he had no choice but to sell the work. The ruling was just issued yesterday. I’ll try to get my hands on the dismissal and look at the substance of the claims. To me, though, it seems like the claimant will have a very difficult time winning the case. We shouldn’t underestimate the underlying equities of a case either, Lloyd Webber was selling the work in order to donate the proceeds to charity. Though Mr. Schoeps story is indeed a tragic one, I’m not sure he will be using the work, or its proceeds, in as charitable a manner.

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