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.