25 February 2015

The most expensive works of art in the world and their histories (or lack thereof)-Part Three

by Marc Masurovsky

7. The Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II, 1912, by Gustav Klimt sold for 87 million dollars at Christie’s on November 8, 2006.
Adele Bloch Bauer II, 1912, Gustav Klimt

8. The Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I (The Lady in Gold) by Gustav Klimt, 1907, sold for 135 million dollars at the same sale.
Adele Bloch Bauer I, 1907, Gustav Klimt

These two portraits of Adele Bloch Bauer were painted by Gustav Klimt on the eve of the First World War. Klimt was a favorite of Viennese Jewish aristocrats. The portraits are lush and exuberant, yet Adele is unreachable and cold. Adele died at a young age in 1925. The Anschluss of March 10, 1938 resulted in the Nazi annexation of Austria into the Greater German Reich and in the wholesale dispossession of Jewish-owned wealth and property followed by the persecution and deportation of tens of thousands of Viennese Jews to concentration camps “nach dem Osten.” The Bloch Bauer family, one of the most financially endowed of Vienna, lost all of its property. Avid collectors of Klimt and other members of the Austrian Secession, the Nazis confiscated all of the family’s works of art which ended up in government depots in Vienna. Decades later, the Nazis gone, the paintings remained in Austria hanging at the Belvedere while the remnants of the family had resettled in exile including Adele’s niece, Marie Altmann. She consulted with Randol Schoenberg, an attorney in Los Angeles and grandson of the composer, Arnold Schoenberg. Randy (as he is known) took her case and spent the greater part of eight years trying to wrest the Bloch Bauer Klimts from the clutches of the Austrian government. He eventually took the Austrian government to the Supreme Court (Altmann v. the Repubic of Austria) and was able to establish “jurisdiction”, a legal maneuver that enabled Marie Altmann to sue the Austrian government in American Federal courts. That verdict tipped the scales against Austria. One possible outcome of the case would have been for Austria to buy back the paintings. But at fair market value, the Austrian government would have spent upwards of 300 million dollars for the paintings including the two portraits of Adele Bloch Bauer. It was unwilling to do so. Marie Altmann won the right to recover her family’s cultural inheritance. Upon restitution, Adele Bloch Bauer I and II went on the auction block.

9. Boy with pipe, 1905, by Pablo Picasso sold for 104 million dollars on May 5, 2004 at Sotheby’s.
Boy with a Pipe, 1905, Pablo Picasso
According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, this painting once belonged to the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family which sold it to the Swiss art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt, who headed the Cassirer gallery. Despite of and because of their wealth and status in Germany’s elite, the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family suffered racial persecutions much like the rest of the Jewish community of Germany. Many of their cultural and artistic possessions were sold under duress in the 1930s.

John Hay Whitney purchased “Boy with a pipe” in 1950. After Whitney’s death, the painting passed to his widow, Betsey. She died in 1998 and a family foundation established by Betsey took control of the Whitney family’s art. The foundation sold the Picasso and other works in 2004.

10. Nude, Green leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso sold for 106 million dollars on April 30, 2010 at Christie’s. 

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, Pablo Picasso
 This complex still life by Picasso was once owned by the fabled French Jewish art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Fearing for his safety following the German invasion of Poland, Paul Rosenberg fled to New York leaving most of his property behind in Paris and several storage sites in central and southwestern France, including his world-renown stock of Impressionist and Cubist works. He stored some of them in a storage shed in Tours under the name of one of his employees, which apparently shielded those works from Nazi seizure. Paul and his brother, Edmond, recovered all of the art stored in Tours after France was liberated.

11. The Scream, 1895 by Edvard Munch sold for 119 million dollars at Sotheby’s on May 2, 2012. The seller was Petter Olsen, whose father, Thomas, had been a neighbor of Edvard Munch.
The Scream, 1895, by Edvard Munch

The reporting on the painting echoed other similar journalistic fawning over the staggering cost of a work of art. Usually, those paeans to the Everest of the art world tend to overshadow the actual history of the objects fetching such ridiculous sums. As it turns out, Munch’s acknowledged masterpiece of angst and despair, The Scream, had passed through many hands. According to the Los Angeles Times, the painting had a clear provenance, starting with Arthur von Franquet who sold it to Hugo Simon who sold it through an art dealer to Thomas Olsen in 1937 and thence by descent to Pette Olsen.

A posting on the ARCAblog which came on the heels of the fabled sale of the Munch painting summarized the history of the Scream as provided by the Sotheby’s auction house. There we learn that Hugo Simon purchased the painting in 1926 and consigned it to the Kunsthaus in Zurich, nearly 10 years later in December 1936. One month later, the painting presumably found its way to Stockholm where Thomas Olsen, the father of the seller, acquired the painting at M. Molvidson, Konst & Antikvitetshandel.

Meanwhile, one of the Hugo Simon heirs contacted the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and expressed his concern that the painting had been sold by his great-grandfather under duress. Thus it was a forced sale, and Sotheby’s refused to acknowledge that fact. This additional element cast a pall on the entire sale. However, it was clear that nothing would stop this juggernaut of the auction market from doing anything to prevent the sale, especially because it represented such a hefty pay day for the auction house.

Five months after the sale, the Museum of Modern Art of New York announced that “The Scream” will be on temporary display as of mid-October 2012, thanks to one of MoMA’s trustees, Leon Black, who happened to be the lucky purchaser of the famed painting.

At this point, the local New York press took seriously charges made by Raphael Cardoso, Hugo Simon’s great-grand-son, that Hugo Simon had been forced to sell the Scream as well as most of his art collection as a direct result of his persecution as a Jew in Nazi Germany. He fled to Paris then to Brazil. The Nazis confiscated all of his assets in Germany, then, after the invasion of France, did the same with his few possessions in Paris, including his apartment and the art and furniture that it contained.
The Jewish Forward cited the October 14, 2012, article by Isabel Vincent and essentially reprinted Raphael Cardoso’s concerns. It is the only article that called into question the provenance of “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch.  Shortly afterwards, the online art world blog, Artinfo, titled an article: Is the Scream Nazi loot?  The Jewish Journal echoed the Simon heirs’ demand that, at the very least, MoMA accompany the Scream with an explanatory piece that echoed the context in which the painting changed hands once Hugo Simon tried to sell it in the mid-1930s. 

Finally, another blog, City Review, disclosed the fact that Pette Olsen, then owner of “The Scream”, had offered 250,000 dollars to the family that it could donate to whatever cause it desired. What the article did not mention is that Sotheby’s brokered this offer. The family turned it down on grounds that “it was insulting.”

In sum, a story that should have riled the art world became a “Jewish” story as only the Jewish and Israeli press took heed of the claim made by the Simon heirs that the iconographic painting of anxiety and despair portrayed so emphatically by Munch, could have been the subject of a forced sale.
If anything, the Munch painting’s travails echo once again the difficulty inherent in defining what a forced sale is, what duress really means, when faced with a claim for restitution seventy years later.

11. The dream, 24 January 1932 by Pablo Picasso sold for 155 million dollars on March 26, 2013, in a private sale between the casino billionaire, Steve Wynn, and the stockbroker billionaire, Steve Cohen, who was then under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Dream, 1932, Pablo Picasso

Victor and Sally Gancz had acquired the painting in New York for 7,000 dollars in 1941 and kept it in their possession until November 11, 1997 There is no information about who might have sold it to them and when the painting actually crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, Gancz sold The Dream to an Austrian-born financier, Wolfgang Flöttl, whose name also appeared on the provenance of van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet.

Flöttl sold The Dream to Steve Wynn in 2001. In an unfortunate incident that made the news globally, Wynn tripped and tore the painting with his elbow. Following its successful restoration for which he spared no expense (as good as new if not better!), he offered it to Steve Cohen who had already expressed in it and would have acquired it earlier had it not been for the rip.

12. Les joueurs de cartes, early 1890s, by Paul Cézanne, sold for 259 million dollars in 2011 to a member of the Qatar royal family. The seller was a Greek billionaire, George Embiricos, who amassed an impressive art collection. 

Les joueurs de cartes, early 1890s, Paul Cezanne

The history of the painting is unknown, save for the fact that Embiricos “owned it for many years”,
Two leading lights of the global art world, Bill Acquavella and Larry Gagosian had presumably offered 220 million dollars for the painting. No deal.
Here we have one of the finest examples of Cézanne’s oeuvre, the second most expensive painting in the world, whose origins are unknown. All that we do know is that Paul Cézanne painted it in the early 1890s.  It left France at a certain point, ending up in Greece at a certain point where it stayed “for many years” before leaving for the Persian Gulf States. So much for “transparency.”

13. "Nafea Faa Ipoipo-When Will You Marry?", 1892, by Paul Gauguin sold in a private sale to the Qatar Royal Family for approximately 300 million dollars in February 2015.

When will you marry? 1892, Paul Gauguin

The seller is the Rudolph Staechelin Family Trust in Basel, Switzerland, which is run by Ruedi Staechelin, Rudolph’s grandson. The painting was on loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. The loan period ends in June 2015. Rudolph Staechelin amassed his collection during the interwar years and befriended most of the artists whose works he had purchased. His grandson, Ruedi Staechelin, a former auction house executive, has taken a strong position against the UNIDROIT convention which he views as “an enormous danger to public and private collecting”. UNIDROIT was put into place in the mid-1990s to remind the international community of the legal, financial, and ethical risks involved in trading and displaying stolen art. Staechelin proudly announced that Swiss museums, collectors and even the Swiss Art Trade Association, supported his stance against the international convention on trafficking of looted art. Now you know why Switzerland does not return, does not restitute, and does not repatriate looted cultural assets unless under threat of subpoenas, seizures and arrests. 

What a way to do business!

See the article by Julia Voss on the Gauguin sale that appeared earlier in February 2015 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.