Welcome to the season of the major art auctions in New York. The New York Times (11/9/06) reported:
In a landmark sale, the biggest in auction history, nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of art changed hands last night at Christie’s sale of Impressionist and modern art. Soaring prices for blockbuster paintings by Klimt and Gauguin left thousands of spectators, who came to watch and to buy, gasping.
Not me. Instead I’m gasping at all the legal back stories involved in Wednesday night’s auction.
The most current one involved Christie’s lead item: Picasso’s “Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto” a.k.a. “The Absinthe Drinker.” On Monday, SDNY judge Jed Rakoff dismissed a suit brought against the auction house by an heir of a prominent Jewish Berlin banker who had owned the painting during WWII. The suit claimed title to the painting and sought its return or $60 million plus attorneys fees. Although Judge Rakoff ruled that the federal court had no jurisdiction over the matter, he hinted at his opinion on the merits stating, “I know that no one in the art world is just interested in money or in buying and selling paintings for profit. They’re guided by their belief in truth and beauty. But nevertheless, one might suspect that this is just a fight about money.” That suspicion was first raised by Christie’s who publicly questioned the motivation of the plaintiff in waiting 70 years to bring suit and then only days before this major auction. Christie’s attempted to take the high ground calling the plaintiff’s actions “a disservice to the restitution community.”
The painting has been owned by the foundation of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s (of “Cats” fame) since 1995. According to the plaintiff, his ancestor consigned the painting to his Swiss art dealer who sold it in the last months of his life. Christie’s contends the painting was sold after his death, but argues that either way it was a legal sale. The plaintiff’s suit rests on his claim the sale of the painting was under duress by the Nazis; a so-called “forced sale.” In this case, it seems that the Nazis seized the banker’s assets thereby forcing him to sell the art in 1934 in a depressed Berlin art market. This set of facts departs slightly from successful forced-sale claims in which art was sold in “Jew auctions” where Jewish art dealers were prohibited from making sales other than through Nazi-organized art auctions.
The lawsuit was re-filed in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday. Finally, just hours before the auction, Christie’s announced it was withdrawing the painting because “of eleventh-hour claims” that cast a “cloud of doubt” over title to the painting. The painting was estimated sale at $40 to $60 million. This means that if the painting were sold at say $50 million (all the other works sold exceeded their estimates), Christie’s lost $6 million, or its 12% commission (the lower commission charged for expensive works).
Also part of Wednesday’s auction were five Gustav Klimts that were the subject of a 2004 Supreme Court case, Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677. In that case, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of one of the paintings, willed the paintings to the Austrian Museum upon her husband’s death. She died, the WWII ensued and the paintings were seized by the Nazis. After the war, her husband willed them to their nieces and nephews. The Supreme Court ruled that the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act could be applied retroactively to Altmann’s case, thus paving the way for Altman to sue the Austrian Government in US Courts. In April of this year, the Austrian National Gallery was compelled by a national arbitration board to return the five paintings to Maria Altmann, the niece of the original owner. On Wednesday night, the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for $87.9 million, a Klimt record and almost double its estimate. The room reportedly exploded in applause.
Still another work in Wednesday’s auction was the subject of a legal dispute. “Berliner Strassenszene” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was only recently was turned over to the heirs of Jewish shoe factory owner Alfred Hess by the Bruecke-Museum in Berlin, where it hung since 1980. In that dispute, Hess’ widow contended she was intimidated into bringing the painting back to Germany from safety in Switzerland.