Dilemma over sale of Nazi stolen art

Sydney Morning Herald 13 November 2006
Tony Paterson

The German Government has called a crisis meeting about how it deals with art sold by, or confiscated from, Jews under the Nazis after controversy over paintings restored to their original families only to be auctioned for vast sums abroad.

The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has summoned culture ministers and museum directors to discuss an overhaul of the restitution law, which critics say is stripping museums of important works.

Under the law, paintings and sculptures that were parted with under duress must be returned to their owners or their heirs. But a heated debate over the way the law is operating was fuelled last week by two dramatic developments: the sale of an important expressionist work for a record price in New York, and an attempt through the courts to block the auction of a Picasso, owned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation.

The painting, Berlin Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was auctioned by Christie's for $US38 million ($49 million), just months after it was removed from a Berlin museum and returned to a granddaughter of its original Jewish owners - Anita Halpin, chairman of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Through the auction house she sold it to Ron Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, who intends to display the painting at his Neue Galerie in New York.

The rapid sale has provoked art lovers and museum directors to complain that Germany's artistic heritage is being spirited away from view and sold off for millions to private collectors.

Critics say that collectors have encouraged the former Jewish owners to seek the return of the paintings from Germany, then sought to acquire the work at auction. There are fears that a similar fate awaits at least 50 other key works by Kirchner and the German expressionists August Macke, Lyonel Feininger and Franz Marc.

However, on Saturday Mr Lauder hit back at the critics, insisting he had bought only two such works of art - the Kirchner and Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer - and both would be on public display.

Last week, the German historian Julius Schoeps issued a last-minute claim to the Picasso painting, Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto which was due for auction in New York.
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