31 August 2015

A small tribute to Charles Goldstein

Charles Goldstein
by Marc Masurovsky

Charles Goldstein, counsel to the Commission for Art Recovery and Ronald Lauder’s attorney, died on July 30, 2015. He was 78 years old. Mr. Goldstein was also affiliated with the New York law firm of Herrick Feinstein, which has developed over the years a prestigious art restitution practice. Herrick Feinstein’s most visible cases have been the Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele and the missing paintings of the late Jacques Goudstikker. Mr. Goldstein's most significant case at the time of his death is CAR's representation of the Baron Herzog's heirs against the Republic of Hungary.

I will now refer to Mr. Goldstein as Charles because of the budding friendship that evolved between us. I cannot say for certain that there was a deep friendship, but it certainly went beyond acquaintanceship.

Nothing predisposed me from ever meeting Charles and even more so from developing a bond with him, however loosely you would like to define what a bond really is.

As Ronald Lauder’s lawyer and as counsel to the Commission for Art Recovery (CAR), there was much axe to grind over palpable differences between what he represented -- or what I thought he represented--and what I represented. Namely, as a co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), I became embroiled together with my HARP colleagues, Ori Z. Soltes and Willi Korte, in the Portrait of Walli affair which erupted in late 1997 over the refusal by the Board of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA) and its director to even consider opening a dialogue with the relatives of the pre-war owners of two paintings by Egon Schiele with questionable ownership histories that were on display in MoMA’s galleries as loans from the Leopold Collection in Vienna, Austria.

Ronald Lauder was then the Chairman of the Board of MoMA. The perception to the outside world was that Mr. Lauder and the Board of MoMA had steadfastly refused to sit down with the proclaimed heirs of the two contested Schiele paintings and to try to “work something out” short of getting embroiled in costly legal entanglements. The claimants wanted the paintings to remain in New York until they could get a fair hearing. MoMA wanted to honor its contractual obligations with the Leopold Museum and get the paintings out of the museum at the end of the Schiele Exhibit scheduled for the first week of January 1998. At that time, Charles was not directly involved in art restitution matters. In a very frank exchange that Charles and I had over the Wally affair, Charles insisted that Lauder was not involved in MoMA's ill-treatment of the Wally affair.

Thus began a cold spell between HARP and CAR. It did not help matters that CAR had sought to silence HARP by offering to “buy” it out of existence in the summer of 1998.  Lauder represented CAR and there was no way of understanding how CAR could square art restitution and MOMA's handling of the Schiele paintings. As far as HARP was concerned, CAR had gone to the dark side, choosing to leave most art restitution claimants in the cold and catering to wealthy clients seeking the return of their priceless works. Those were the caustic days of the late 1990s embittered by the mixed results of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets of December 1998, fueled by the American government's inability and unwillingness to truly move forward on this last chapter of WWII, dealing with the fate of looted Jewish cultural assets. Much water has since flowed under the proverbial bridge. Cooler heads have somewhat prevailed and it is clear that HARP's initial assessment of CAR ended up being far from accurate, as attested by Charles' groundbreaking work in art restitution cases and that of his colleague, the extremely able and brilliant Agnes Peresztegi, Director of European Operations for CAR.

Seven years elapsed since the Wally affair and the Washington Conference. A mutual friend advised Charles to invite me to a very unusual (by my standards) international gathering of specialists co-sponsored by the London-based International Foundation for Cultural Diplomacy that was being held in southern Bavaria on the estates of the Duke of Bavaria. Charles/CAR agreed to sponsor my presence at this conclave. The topic at hand: databases and art restitution. I hadn’t set foot in Germany since 1972.

I drove through the Swiss-German border, laden with ancient memories of Jewish refugees being turned back in the 1930s and early 1940s. I was so terrified that I slowed down to show my passport. I was quickly summoned to keep on driving because… there was no passport check.

As I drove along the roads flanking the northern edges of Lake Constanz, names of towns echoed with direct associations to former slave labor camps, depots for looted Jewish property, and Allied battlefields. It was in this area that Jacques Doriot, leader of the PPF and a close friend of the German occupation forces in France had been machine-gunned on a lonely road towards the end of WWII. Charming!

I found myself arriving two hours earlier than I should have at the town of Salem---a curious name since in the US, Salem had hosted the first political trial of the New World accusing a group of young women of using sorcery and witchcraft against the town's "respectable" men.

My first stop was the local cemetery. You might find that strange but cemeteries are the best way of getting acquainted with the history of a community. The first “monument” that I saw was a plain, massive rectangular marble slab tacked to a small obelisk bearing the etched names of German soldiers from Salem who have gone “missing” during WWII. I found it truly moving and, no matter how much havoc those young soldiers might have wreaked in the former Soviet Union, it was still a compelling homage by their kin to indicate their fate as “missing”. Call it my ecumenical side but a human loss is a human loss, no matter which side of the fence you happen to reside on. My heart did leap when I saw several names with those familiar 'lightning bolts" etched next to them. Further along, tucked away behind the right wall of the church, around which the cemetery was formed, one stumbled on the Social Democratic section—made quite obvious by the tributes engraved on various tombstones. A good indication that Salem had experienced a complex political past reflective of Germany’s woes during the Weimar period. No Jewish graves in sight.

I eventually stumbled into my temporary living quarters, located on the estate of the Duke of Bavaria, down the street from the cemetery. I walked around the grounds and saw seated at a table outside the “inn” drinking a cocktail a small, balding, rotund figure topped with a roundish puffy face. He was wearing what the French call a grey “gilet” over which he wore a dark jacket. It was Charles. He motioned me to his table and we started chatting over nothing and everything. So began our “friendship”.

Over the years, we learned to trust each other. Although trust is a big word, maybe respect is more appropriate. I never worked for Charles, but he invited me over time to keep him “posted” on my activities and what I knew of specific occurrences in the art restitution field, a genuine hornest’s net crossed with a snake pit.

We did end up “working” together to stymie attempts by the American museum community to pass laws in Congress that would in effect eliminate claimants’ only recourse to plead their case in US courts over objects with contested histories. This collaboration, particularly centered around SB 2212 and its subsequent variants in the House of Representatives, defined the outer boundaries of our “bond.” The discussions provoked by the proposed legislation to “immunize” stolen works and objects of art entering the US for purposes of display, compelled us to find common grounds over issues such as barring statutes of limitations and other technical legal defenses in art restitution cases and Federal regulation of due diligence practices in the art world.

Charles, never one to mince his words, flatly stated that restitution litigation as we know it would die off quietly because of the paucity of claims coming forth in US civil courts. I could only retort that the huge cost of litigation, no thanks to Charles’ steep fee structure, discouraged most claimants from coming forward. His quip was to restate that he and his firm would not take any case where the object’s value was less than one million dollars. Period.

We left it at that.

The most important moment for me was when Charles broke rank with American Jewish organizations over the campaign to defeat SB 2212 by arguing that it was wrong and unethical to disregard other genocidal events against indigenous peoples and cultures around the world, including one of the most egregious which targeted the original inhabitants of the Americas. He recognized that it was in our common interest to seek support from those advocates of other groups and constituencies seeking redress for past genocides and from the archaeological community. It demonstrated his profound ethos and commitment to color-blind justice. The strategy worked and SB 2212 died a miserable death.

Charles and I ended up meeting several times a year in New York at some of his favorite watering and eating haunts, either on the upper west side across from the Lincoln Center, or across from his firm at 33rd Street and Park, or even on the upper East Side close to where he lived.

He gradually shared more elements of his personal life which were “entertaining” to say the least. I never considered Charles to be a ladies’ man, but, yes, he was, in his own special way. He had a disarming smile and a wicked sense of humor, almost disarming.

As he grew weaker due to his illness, he maintained a stoic poise and was quite frank about his few brushes with death owing to allergic reactions to the medication that he was taking which seemed to incapacitate him. But he was a fighter and he knew how fortunate he was to be so well cared for by a supportive network.

I end this small tribute to him with two last thoughts:

I thank him dearly for extending himself professionally by supporting projects dear to my heart.

He left behind a wonderful daughter, Deborah, who, in so many ways, is the antithesis of her father. But they both share a huge heart and openness of mind that are hard to find nowadays. I never had the pleasure of meeting his son, Graham, nor his ex-wives. But my heart goes out to all of them for their loss.

Charles: You are sorely missed. You were and continue to be a driving force and a huge influence on the restitution discussion both in the US and abroad. We have not yet measured the impact of your passing. The fact that your opponents representing museums and art dealers have already uncorked champagne bottles toasting your disappearance is premature and typical of their hubris. We’ll see who has the last word.

More importantly, you taught me to value and nurture a more pragmatic approach to seek a more ethical treatment of restitution claims and instill better practices in the management of objects with dubious histories. In that regard, you were an excellent teacher.

I do miss you, as a friend, a colleague and an intellectual foil.

You are a mensch.

25 August 2015

Interview with Simon Goodman, author of "The Orpheus Clock"

 Interview conducted by Angelina Giovani

[Editor's note] Simon Goodman is the grandson of Friedrich Gutmann, a Dutch Jewish banker whose possessions were plundered during the German occupation of the Netherlands and who paid with his life at the hands of the Gestapo. One of the paintings that Gutmann lost was a pastel by Edgar Degas entitled "Landscape with Smokestacks", that ended up in the collection of an American billionaire, Daniel Searle, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. The case became known as Goodman v. Searle and led to a bruising David against Goliath-style battle between the Goodman heirs and an extremely wealthy man who refused to return the pastel, on principle, arguing his good faith in the acquisition of the looted work. The outcome was mixed as the case led to a settlement.  Twenty years later, Simon Goodman has penned “The Orpheus Clock” which recounts his family’s history and the ordeals it faced during the tumultuous 20th century and its endless quest for justice to recover lost works and objects of art and, with them, a piece of the family's plundered memory and spirit. 

Landscape with Smokestacks, Edgar Degas

Mr.Goodman, when did you decide you wanted to write "The Orpheus Clock"? Was there a particular moment or event that triggered your need to tell the story?

I had the idea to write “The Orpheus Clock” almost 20 years ago. While researching two Degas paintings from my grandfather’s collection, I was angry to discover that he was not mentioned in any of the catalogues raisonné about that artist. I was shocked by how quickly my family had gone from fame and fortune to almost complete obscurity. It became my mission to make sure my family would not be forgotten. It was also my process for getting to know the family I never knew.
The Orpheus Clock

Why did you decide to use the Orpheus Clock as the title of the book? Would you say there is an underlying metaphorical relation between the ancient Greek myth and some of the events in the book?

The Orpheus Clock, I feel, symbolizes obviously the passage of time and in this case the reversal or return of my family’s fortunes. After decades of suffering the clock’s hand points towards happier times. Meanwhile the Orpheus legend symbolizes the will power to make great change. The Clock also represents my largely successful attempt to reunite the remaining dispersed fragments of my family, many of whom had never known each other before. Finally the restitution of this remarkable clock is also significant because it was my first direct restitution from Germany.

Most of us find it hard to even imagine what it would mean to be left with tens of boxes containing documents of the kind you were presented with. Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you and your brother hadn’t decided to go through them?

I don’t think there was ever any doubt that my brother and I would continue our father’s work once we understood the enormous extent of what had been taken from our family. That being said, I have often wondered how different my life (and many others) would have been had my father’s girl-friend decided not to pack up all his old papers – it would have been so easy for somebody to throw them all away assuming they were obsolete and worthless.

Almost half of the book is dedicated to telling the story of your ancestors. When did you start tracing your family’s genealogy? Was it a parallel process to locating the art works or did you treat it as a separate process? Could you walk us through it?

Tracing my family’s genealogy and tracking our lost artworks went hand-in-hand. The works of art gave me an insight into the characters of those that had collected and cherished them. Also by following my grandfather and great-grandfather’s footsteps, as the amassed their collections, I gained invaluable insight into their habits and lifestyles. Growing up after the war with very little family, it was important to me to be able to establish my roots. Now that I have managed to document hundreds of relatives and ancestors I have discovered a huge family that I am justly proud of.

The first part of the book does a brilliant job in painting a vivid picture of events at the turn of the century. There are parts in the book that make reference to what Eugen, Louise, Fritz and others might have felt or said in certain occasions. Were these excerpts derived from actual letters and/or written records or are they to be attributed to your attempt to give them a voice and bring them closer to the reader?

Fritz and Lili Gutmann

Virtually all our family records and letters disappeared during the war. Most of my recreation of the Gutmann family is based on what I was able to glean from my father’s notes and his sister’s recollections. A small amount of detail has also been preserved by the historical society of the Dresdner Bank. The rest I have extrapolated from snippets about the family that I found in old books and periodicals.

If you had to single out one of the moments in your mission to recover your family’s treasure as the most emotionally charged, which one would you pick? Why?

There have been many highly emotional events concerning the recovery of my family’s treasures.

"Sensuality," by Franz von Stuck

However one of the highlights of my saga is definitely when the Franz von Stuck “Sensuality” was taken down off the wall by the man who had had it for 40 years. He then helped me carry it to my car, where we put it carefully in the trunk. This was perhaps the closest I have got to a perfect restitution: no money changed hands and the legal work was kept to a minimum. After much conversation and deliberation the collector just decided to do the right thing. This was an intensely gratifying moment. The return of the Baldung-Grien comes fairly close behind, whereas all the other cases have involved considerable blood, sweat and tears.

In 1991, your father wrote a small memoir summarizing his attempts to recover the artworks and is quoted as saying “Only the lawyers made money”. Almost a quarter of a century later, is that an accurate statement?   

My experience with lawyers has been fairly similar to that of my father’s, which is why I have trained myself to do my own research and then approach the appropriate collector, museum or government directly. In fact my approach as the representative of the family and the direct heir has stood me in good stead. The possessor of the artwork is less likely to engage expensive lawyers of their own; in contrast a fruitful dialogue is often the result.

As you now know first hand from your experience, provenance research is an extensive, long and expensive process. What changes would you make to the‘mechanisms’ currently in place that would encourage more claimants to come forward and help correct the elitist approach that is often taken when deciding whether a claim is worth taking forward or not?

I think the reason provenance research has become such a rarified pursuit is largely due to the fact that over the centuries the recording of provenance history has been handled in a very cavalier manner. It has long suited the art business to hide behind these opaque practices. There is no great mystery to art provenance if the data is readily available. Obviously we would all benefit from a national database to which all accredited museums would contribute – galleries too ideally.

Every item has its own history, therefore every case should be treated as an independent search in its own right. But when the number of objects is in the hundreds, time is not on our side and it is impossible to deal with each object individually. Has a systematic approach to methodology come out as a result of your many years of researching many objects at once? Do you have any advice for new researchers who find it overwhelming to research multiple objects at the same time?

My approach to prioritizing my claims is fairly simple. At any given time at the top of the stack is the one I think is the most likely to succeed. The next priority involves the greatest number of pieces that are still in one specific place. Concerning research, I find it very helpful to stay focused on one specific school or medium i.e. Dutch 17th genre painters or Italian baroque bronzes. Collectors and galleries also operate within similar parameters. Invariably when looking for a particular Northern European Mannerist silver sculpture I find several mentions of others that were in my family’s collection.

As you state at the end of the book, your search is still ongoing. Could you share with the readers what your next quest is?
Several cases have been on the back burner while I finished my book. Coming to the fore now is a claim for eleven rare, and very beautiful, Italian hand-painted majolica dishes, which I found a couple of years ago in a Dutch museum. I also expect an imminent settlement for some Renaissance jewelry. Meanwhile I am negotiating with a Bavarian museum for the return of several antiques, mostly Meissen, including some of my grandmother’s coffee cups.  
Sword of Damocles, Avelli

All photos, except the reproduction of "Landscape with Smokestacks" and the book cover were supplied by Simon Goodman.

24 August 2015

Hitler's Art Thief: A Review of Susan Ronald's Book on Hildebrand Gurlitt and the Looting of Europe's Treasures (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015)

by Ori Z Soltes

This book may not be for everyone: if all you are interested in is the number of artworks that surfaced out of the anonymity of Cornelius Gurlitt's collections back in 2013, then you might as well skip it and google a few newspaper articles instead. But if you keep wondering not only how he ended up with such a cache (okay, from his father), and, more to the point, how his father, Hildebrand, acquired them and managed to pass them onto his son, beyond the newspaper references to Hildebrand as an art buyer--or, rather, art plunderer--on behalf of Hitler, then this book is required reading.

Anybody who spends time studying the Holocaust is aware of how fraught with contradiction its architects were--just think of how neither Hitler nor any of his inner circle conformed to the "Aryan" physical description that he spent so many years championing; that the tall, muscular blond super-race of Uebermenschen whom he intended to lead forward into a thousand-year-long future would by definition have excluded Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Bormann and Hitler himself. And consider the millions who cheered these fine fellows on without apparently noticing the contradiction.
Cornelius Gurlitt in his younger years
Susan Ronald's book explores various elements of this multi-leveled irony, particularly as it pertained to the lust for art and the means of acquiring it. She offers the larger contexts of both the shaping of the Nazi period in and beyond Germany and where the Gurlitt family fit into and outside those contexts. Hildebrand's father, Cornelius, was a fairly prominent art historian (a consummate specialist in Baroque art and architecture) who loved but was disappointed in Hildebrand. For the son opted, in the Age of Hitler, to abandon the Ivory Tower in its theoretical purity for the intrinsic venality of the commercial world of galleries and art dealers.

Susan Ronald
Given that this was the Age of Hitler, however, Hildebrand should not only have fallen short of the enormous success he came to enjoy. He and his family should probably have ended up on a freight train to the East rather than his taking trains and planes all over the East and West to acquire art. For one of his grandparents was a Jew. making him a 25% mischling--certainly enough to qualify for a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. And he did have quite a bevy of enemies and competitors, some in very high places. But he had just the right friends and patrons in high places to convince the Fuehrer of his absolute value as an instrument to acquire art for the regime. Far from being persecuted, he prospered.

As Hitler's premier art acquirer, he ingathered not only the sort of art that could go into the expansive museum planned for Linz, Austria, Hitler's virtual home town, but art for Goebbels and Goering and the others (including art that Hitler would not have approved, considering it degenerate), and art for lesser Nazis, and art that, albeit unacceptable to Nazi taste, could be traded, bartered, or sold either to acquire proper art or for armaments and other supplies needed for a voracious Reich. Hildebrand Gurlitt seemed to have a unique talent for finding and acquiring the best among the works of art that could serve one or more of these purposes.

One could almost--almost--read this book and forget that the context of the central events is the double matrix of World War II and the Holocaust; that millions of people were being slaughtered across Europe in foxholes and gas chambers during the financial-aesthetic intrigues about which we are reading. Ms. Ronald does not expend undo energy to focus on the horrors going on all around Hildebrand and his little world within a world on fire. But that is part of her point: he operates as if ensconced in an Iron (not Ivory!) Tower that shields him and his family from that fire. And all of those with whom he is engaged are so singularly obsessed with the art that they are pushing across diverse borders while similarly protected, that they neither think about gas chambers nor about the fate of those from whose collections they are swallowing up. The reader is left to ponder the quiet horror of such deafness and blindness.

Often Ms Ronald's references to aspects of the key figures' personalities and activities fall short of drawing a definitive conclusion regarding their lack or absence of a conscience: she provides enough information for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about these characters without forcing those conclusions upon us. She tells the story adeptly and with careful attention to just the right amount of detail to make her points without burying the reader. But she does not allow us to escape without conclusions nipping at the heels of our minds.

This is necessary to her intentions as a biographer who, in embedding the story of her key character within the larger and particularized history in which his life and death played out, has a still larger goal: to offer this story as a tale that reflects, in the end, on the larger question of human beings and what we are and what we are willing to do--often to each other--to achieve our ends. After all, as we learn, Hitler played off most of the key figures in his inner circle against each other; and nearly all of them, while they were murdering and/or stealing every possible material possession from their victims were also, where they could, defrauding each other--and cheating Hitler whenever it was safe to do so.

What makes this book so important is not only the parts of the story that offer such an incisive psychological portrait of Hildebrand Gurlitt and of all of those around him engaged in the art theft process in which he was engaged. It is an important reminder to those of us involved in the restitution struggle and an eye-opener for those who are not, that the web of deceit, venality, greed, lack of empathy for fellow human beings was far-flung across the human landscape.

Just as the Nazis could not have succeeded in annihilating so many millions of Jews and others without the willing and often enthusiastic cooperation of Frenchmen, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians (to name a few groups)--and not just Germans and Austrians--the movement into the Reich of millions upon millions of works of art and other property from all over Europe would not have been possible without the cooperation of an army of individuals from the art world.

Ms. Ronald pushes us to recognize how banal, indeed, evil can be. How those who presume to be the champions of civilization because they protect its artifacts--art historians, museum curators and directors, gallerists, art dealers and the like--can be and emphatically were the prisoners of their own greed again and again. (So much for the purity of the Ivory Tower). There are no national borders for this ugly side of human nature--not even a vast Atlantic Ocean can separate good from evil. For all of those works slated for trade and barter or exchange for cash rather than for hoarding obviously required and found willing middlemen in "neutral" countries like Spain, Portugal, Sweden and above all, Switzerland, and hungry outlets in the North and South American art markets.

We are still fighting battles for works plundered by Gurlitt and his associates that ended up in the American art world, where no questions of provenance were asked as eager buyers acquired paintings stolen from those slated for annihilation. And the same auction houses in Paris (such as Drouot) that offered their services during and right after the war to help thieves like Gurlitt abscond with property plundered from Jewish victims are still offering their services today to thieves eager to cash in on the sacred cultural and spiritual artifacts of the Hopi and Acoma tribal communities.

The miscues at the end of WWII, from the all-too-brief amount of time available to focus on Gurlitt and his cohorts to the lack of art awareness possessed by those who did interrogate these clean-handed allies of history's most devoted mass-murderers are the subject of Ms Ronald's last chapters. We walk away understanding, if we did not before, how the swiftly-arriving Cold War helped undercut the time and energy needed for more thorough investigations, while gritting our teeth at all of those who walked away, scot-free--and with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art still within their possession (Gurlitt was one of the most important of these, at least given recent events).

We walk away with many questions. We wonder why it took the Germans so long after the almost accidental discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt's hidden collections to begin to let the world know about them. And why the process of distinguishing what was plundered from what not has been wrapped in veils, and when the process will reasonably be finished. And how it is that a substantial group of Gurlitt's holdings ended up in a late will destined for the Bern Museum. And how the museum can claim to do the necessa1ry provenance research with such a small staff, so quickly.

We walk away wondering, as Ms Ronald does, how much is still hidden in how many vaults in how many places, waiting to be found. With Cornelius Gurlitt's death a little over a year ago, we may never know exactly how much is still gathered here or there from what his father managed to steal for himself while he was stealing for Hitler and others. And what of works plundered and perhaps hidden by the likes of Moeller and Voss? This book is the proof that, just when you thought the last word had been written on the Holocaust, in its profound self-contradictory ineffability, there are more awaiting the pen.