Paintings with Nazi-Era Pasts Go on Sale

1945 8 November 2006
Ula Ilnytzky (AP)

Six impressionist paintings with Nazi-era pasts, including a Picasso oil-on-canvas whose ownership was thrown into question earlier this week, were among renowned works of art that were to be auctioned Wednesday evening.

Four of the paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, worth an estimated $140 million, had been the focus of a restitution feud between their Jewish heirs and the Austrian government. They had recently hung at the Neue Galerie, a New York City museum co-founded by cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder.

A painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner of a lively Berlin street scene called "Berliner Strassenszene" was recently turned over to its Jewish heirs by a German museum following a dispute that claimed their ancestors were forced to hand the work over to the Nazis. European art critics have derided the handover, saying it set a dangerous precedent that would hurt museum holdings.

That painting was estimated to fetch up to $25 million at the sale at Christie's auction house.

A similar controversy surrounded "Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto," a work from Picasso's Blue Period. On Monday, a federal judge temporarily blocked its sale so he could look into the heir's claim that his ancestors sold the painting under Nazi duress. A day later, the judge dismissed the case, noting the painting had been in the art market for about 50 years.

The 1903 painting of Picasso's friend de Soto, purchased for $29.1 million in 1995 by the London-based Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, had a presale estimate of up to $60 million.

Webber, the composer of such musicals as "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera," intended to spend the proceeds on actors' scholarships and other theatrical endeavors.

All six paintings comprised Christie's evening sale of impressionist and modern art.

The Klimt paintings — three landscapes and a portrait — were handed over by Austria in January to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, niece of Viennese art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer, following a seven-year legal battle. An arbitration court had ruled that the works were improperly seized when the Nazis took over Austria during World War II.

They were among five Klimts displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from April to June; Lauder purchased one of them from Altmann for his museum — a gold-flecked portrait of Bloch-Bauer for a reported $135 million. Altmann's lawyer said at the time that she wanted to ensure the art would remain somewhere in public view as a testament to Holocaust victims.

Steven Thomas, an attorney representing the heirs, said they decided to sell the remaining four Klimts because they were not able to insure and secure them properly.

Lauder indicated he would consider buying one or more of the paintings "if the price is right."

The Kirchner oil was returned earlier this year by the Bruecke-Museum in Berlin — where it hung since 1980 — to the Jewish heirs of Alfred Hess, a shoe factory owner.

Art experts in Germany and Switzerland argued that the family decided to sell the painting in the 1930s because of Alfred Hess' financial troubles — not the Nazis. But Berlin city officials called the restitution an act of historical justice.
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