The Guardian 25 October 2003
Christie's is refusing to disclose the likely location of an 18th century masterpiece stolen by the Gestapo and being claimed by the heirs of its original Jewish owners. It is the second case uncovered by the Guardian in which the London auction house is accused of failing to help families whose property was looted by the Nazis.
Christie's is also effectively gagging one of its former senior employees who discovered the probable location of the painting and would like to tell the Jewish family who say they owned it before the war. The picture is a Venetian scene by the 18th century Italian master Michele Marieschi and would be worth about £250,000 if sold with good title.
Charles Beddington, the former head of the old master paintings department at Christie's, says he has seen it in the French home of an English client of Christie's. But the company has told him he would be breaching client confidentiality if he discloses the man's identity to Eva Glaser and Erika Tauber, twin sisters who, as children, fled Vienna with their father in 1938 after Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria.
The family's belongings, including its art collection, were left in storage and were stolen by the Gestapo. It is well established that the Gestapo stole the art collections of many Jewish families in Austria. Mr Beddington, who worked for Christie's for 15 years and now runs a West End art dealership, said: "I do feel bad towards the Taubers and Glasers because I think it should be easier for them to resolve this with somebody. I would like to do everything I can to help them, but not to the point of breaking a legal contract." Impasse
The impasse makes it difficult for the case to be resolved by either of the remedies often used in Holocaust-related claims to works of art - a negotiated settlement between the two parties or a court ruling on who is the true owner.
The daughters of Heinrich Graf, a Vienniese banker who fled Austria in 1940, say that Christie's behaviour is impossible to reconcile with its public stance of supporting efforts to return Nazi-looted goods to the rightful owners. Richard Aydon, Christie's legal director, said publicly last year that the firm wants "not only to do the right thing but to be seen to do the right thing" in respect of Holocaust claims.
Stephen Tauber, husband of one of the twins, said: "I think the ethics of Christie's are fouled up. They seem to want to act only in the interests of their clients and their potential clients rather than the true owners of the picture. I understand where they are coming from, but it is a poor position to take."
Heinrich Graf, a Viennese banker and father of the twin sisters, led the hunt for the family's lost possessions until his death in 1976. The Marieschi, View of Grande Canale and Dogana, painted around 1740, was among his most treasured posses sions. In 1998 the sisters advertised the family's claim in the newspaper of the Art Loss Register, an organisation that helps victims of art theft, including works stolen in the Holocaust. Christie's itself is a shareholder in the register.
The advert showed the Graf's family's pre-war photograph of the Marieschi under the heading Buyer Beware - Holocaust Losses" and appealed for information. It was seen by Mr Beddington, one of the few people in the world who would be able to confirm a positive sighting. Venetian scenes are notoriously hard to identify but Mr Beddington is recognised as an expert in the genre. He had seen the Marieschi in the Englishman's home in France 13 years earlier. "I think it is highly likely it is the same painting as the one in the photograph," he said.
At the time, Mr Beddington had just left Christie's employment after 15 years service but was still retained as a consultant. He asked the firm for permission to tell the sisters the name of the holder of the painting.
Christie's refused. It said Mr Beddington could only write to the Englishman informing him of the sisters' ownership claim. Two letters to the man went unanswered and a follow-up telephone call produced only a blunt refusal to discuss the issue.
Mr Beddington says he has since been warned in writing by Christie's that disclosure of the man's identity would be a breach of his on-going duty of confidentiality.
The Glaser and Tauber sisters, who live in Lexington, Massachusetts, have tried unsuccessfully in the US courts to force Christie's to disclose the holder's identity. Christie's attorneys said the firm would not do so without a court order and argued that no American court could give such an order because "such information as Christie's has is solely located in the United Kingdom". The firm says it made clear it would cooperate with an application to a UK court.
In a statement yesterday Christie's said: "There is a straightforward procedure available to the descendants of Heinrich Graf by which they can apply to the UK court for an order empowering us to release the information they seek. We have clearly indicated to them that we would not oppose such an application and we are unclear why they have not taken any steps to do so."
Mr Tauber denied that the family has received an indication that Christie's would not oppose a UK application. He added: "They opposed us when we tried it in the US courts. My personal interpretation is that it is just another way of putting us off. They opposed us in the US courts and now they are saying 'try it in UK courts and see what happens'."
He said the family had already spent substantial sums on lawyers bills. "When your legal costs are approaching the value of what you are trying to recover, it is very frustrating," Mr Tauber said. Consent
Christie's statement also said: "Without the consent of its owner, or an order from the court we are prevented from volunteering the details of the person in possession of the painting because to do so would entail a break of our duty of confidentiality." Of its stance towards Mr Beddington, it said: "Employees and ex-employees are under an ongoing duty of confidentiality".
The painting is now effectively unsaleable. No auction house would ever offer it for sale and no dealer or collector would be foolish enough to buy a picture where ownership is in dispute.
In Mr Beddington's view, it is only Christie's that can break the deadlock. "Both parties here are presumably unhappy - one is feeling threatened and the other is feeling they have got nothing to lose.
"Christie's are the only people who can progress this and the way to do it is to open up a dialogue between the two camps. Some sensible, diplomatic person needs to sort it out. Christie's should be attempting to do it themselves, or letting somebody else have a go. But in the meantime they are clearly being less than public spirited."
"What Christie's is doing is not just morally unsound but stupid because it is prolonging a problem that needs sorting out and the longer it goes on the more time it wastes. They have got the only key that would unlock the door to discussion."
Anne Webber, co-chairperson of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe - an organisation that helps Holocaust victims recover works of art - made a similar point. "To ask families to go to court is financially onerous and not the best way to resolve these kinds of cases. Often it just tends to polarise the situation.
"The best solution would be to get people round a table with an independent person who would listen to both sides and try to find a solution."
Christie's said it had tried to persuade the owner to discuss the matter but that he "appears to be unwilling, at least at the present time". http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1070648,00.html