War provenance art: a growing source of supply in the market

The Art Newspaper 17 December 2004
Georgina Adam

It is impossible to estimate the value of cultural assets looted in the period from 1933 to 1948; apart from the monetary value, the emotional cost to families who lost possessions cannot be measured on any scale. However, there is one figure that can be quantified: that of the amount of restituted art sold at public auction. Since 1996, Sotheby’s and Christie’s alone have sold a combined total of about £140 million ($252 million at today’s exchange rate) of art returned to families from museums and private collections. As more and more art, primarily looted by the Nazis as well as the Red Army, is being identified and returned, it is becoming an increasingly important source of supply for the auction houses. And because it is generally the heirs of the original owners who receive the restituted art, they often have to sell in order to share equitably the value of the works, particularly in the case of major paintings.

Restituted art is compensating for the diminishing stocks of high-quality works in the Old Master, Impressionist and Modern art fields. It is also highly saleable, as such works often come from important collections, are fresh to the market, have in some cases spent decades in museums and, of course, carry no lingering uncertainty concerning provenance.

The largest single sale of restituted art was the Rothschild Collection, which made £57.7 million ($89.9 million) at Christie’s in 1999. The highest price ever paid for such a work of art is Leger’s “La Femme en rouge et vert”, 1914, which sold for $22.4 million (£13.3 million) at Christie’s New York in November 2003. These top prices are just the tip of the iceberg; alongside them is a mass of lesser works that make it to auction. Sotheby’s is currently selling works from the Steinthal Collection, a group of paintings, drawings and documents that were confiscated twice, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. In January, the auction house will sell two Messerschmidt busts, which have recently been restituted to the heirs of the Viennese man of letters Richard Beer-Hofmann. Last month a restituted Sisley, “Soleil de printemps”, made $2 million at Christie’s New York, while in London four paintings from the Steinthal material made £2.19 million.

Both major auction houses have dedicated staff in this area. Sotheby’s made Lucian Simmons worldwide director of restitution in 2000, while Christie’s has just announced the appointment of Monica Dugot. Both are lawyers, and based in New York. Ms Dugot was previously deputy director of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department; Mr Simmons has been with Sotheby’s for 10 years and has been working on these issues since 1997.

Both auction houses have their own databases of suspect names (of victims of looting, known Nazis, collaborationist art dealers and so on) which, if they appear in a provenance, immediately trigger further research; Mr Simmons says that, “due diligence is an integral part of business getting and cataloguing. It is an imperative on the market today, and we make it a selling point”. Christie’s US president Mark Porter says, “art buyers crave clean provenance. We have a corporate commitment to buyers, and to restitution issues in general, and there is also a moral side to this”.

While both auction houses are shareholders in The Art Loss Register (ALR), which has its own Holocaust Initiative, Ms Dugot says, “no one organisation can do it all, there is just so much information coming out of Germany, France and Russia. In 1997/98 there was talk of one central database but it was never created, so we have to draw on a great variety of sources”. Mr Simmons notes that when he started working on restitution issues, he had one shelf of books on the subject: now he has seven.

“This is a global issue”, says Ms Dugot. The Sisley is a case in point; the painting was looted by the Gestapo in Paris in 1942, but recovered from Japan. It was returned to the French claimant after a 14-year battle, during which he brought a formal legal complaint against the Japanese owner. Ms Dugot says, however, that litigation is best avoided, for reasons of time and cost; the best solution for bona fide owners and claimants is to find a solution which may involve splitting the sale price if a work goes to auction.

Asked if she thinks that the amount of restituted art coming onto the market will increase in the future, Ms Dugot comments that, “I suspect we shall see more, as more information becomes available”, while Mr Simmons says, “the issue of wartime spoliation is far from resolved. Although many countries have made huge efforts to review and make publicly available information on the provenance of public holdings, it may be many years before a clear picture emerges, in particular in southern Europe”.
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