Heir eyes fortune as "lost" Klimt comes to auction

Reuters 2 February 2010

When a rare Klimt landscape goes under the hammer at Sotheby's on Wednesday, the sellers will not be the only interested party.

Georges Jorisch, born in Vienna in 1928 and now living in Montreal, will also have a close eye on proceedings in the London auction room as he stands to make a sizeable fortune if the painting does as well as expected.

In one of the highest-profile cases in recent years of art that disappeared during World War Two being returned to its original owners, the auctioneer is offering Gustav Klimt's "Kirche in Cassone" for an estimated $19-29 million.

Jorisch is a descendant of the wealthy Jewish family that originally owned the Klimt before it was seized either by the Soviets or Nazis during World War Two only to surface decades later at an exhibition.

After years of discussion between Jorisch, the current owners -- who insisted on anonymity -- and Sotheby's, the work has made it to auction where the proceeds will be split between the sides. Sotheby's also stands to make a 12 percent commission on anything over 500,000 pounds.

"Where a painting is in a private collection it has probably been traded a number of times, and so you almost have two victims," said Lucian Simmons, head of restitution at Sotheby's.

"You find there is often room for settlement when two people have been wronged," he added. He generally advises clients to avoid litigation because of the large fees it involves.

Jorisch is a descendant of the Zuckerkandl family which bought the 1913 painting directly from the artist.

Viktor and Paula Zuckerkandl died childless in 1927, so the Klimt went to Viktor's sister Amalie -- Jorisch's maternal grandmother. She and Jorisch's mother Mathilde perished in the Holocaust. But Jorisch and his father fled Vienna in 1938.

That same year, Amalie arranged for her paintings to be stored by a shipping company, but when Jorisch's father located the crates in 1947 they were empty. The shipping company accused Soviet forces, but the Nazis may have been to blame.

The trail of the painting was lost until it resurfaced at an exhibition in 1962, after which it changed hands several times before reappearing at a show in 2002-3.


Major auction houses vet works in case they are the subject of disputes, and several have been returned to their original owners after evidence showed they were unfairly appropriated.

Restitution cases generally fall into two categories -- where an institution is forced by law to return works to the family from which they were forcibly taken or where the heirs and new owners agree to divide the proceeds of a sale.

Restitution was common in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, when the scale of art theft was staggering.

According to Sotheby's, the Nazis stored some five million objects in mines, castles and other depots between 1939-1945, and millions were returned in the post-war period.

Simmons said a new wave of restitutions came with the third generation of the original owners, aided by the 1998 Washington Principles which outlined how to deal with Nazi-looted art.

A steady stream of cases, which often come with tragic and dramatic stories, shows no signs of abating yet, he added, with "more families out there who have potential claims."

The issue hit headlines in 2006, when Ronald S. Lauder paid a reported $135 million for a Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose niece was awarded the work and four others following a restitution battle with the Austrian government.

The deal was brokered by Christie's, which went on to auction the remaining four works for a combined $192.7 million.

In 2008, Sotheby's sold restituted or settled works worth $90 million, including a $60 million Kazimir Malevich returned to the artist's heirs after a museum in Amsterdam was forced to hand it over.

The total fell to just $16 million in 2009, a figure likely to be surpassed in 2010 with the Klimt and a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, sold by a German Jew to Nazi leader Hermann Goering to ensure his family's safety, fetching $6.8 million last month.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)
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