27 February 2017

Oprah and Adele II

by Marc Masurovsky


This is an opinion piece and you—the reader—are always free to disagree with what you are about to read. Perhaps, after having spent two decades in the trenches of the art restitution movement, if there ever was such a thing,  my glasses have become tinted. Still, the inability and/or unwillingness of art market players, whether they be gallerists, auctioneers, private collectors, buyers, and brokers alike to be more forthcoming about publicizing the history of the objects with which they come into contact, remains to this day perplexing, in defiance of any reasonable argumentation, save for the old yarn that there is no law that compels one to disclose a full provenance for an art object, regardless of its origin.

In 1912, Gustav Klimt, the renowned master of the Austrian Secessionist movement, painted several portraits of a delicate, frail, wan, Jewish woman named Adele Bloch Bauer, the heiress to a sizeable fortune amassed by her husband, Ferdinand Bloch Bauer, one of the leading Jewish bankers of Vienna. Adele Bloch Bauer died in 1925.

The National Socialist German Reich absorbed Austria in an “Anschluss” in March 1938, a geopolitical act which served overnight as a suspended death sentence for the several hundred thousand Jews living in Austria at that time. The Nazification of Austria led to a systematic campaign of persecution targeting Austria’s Jewish community, punctuated by mass arrests, torture, evictions, expropriations, outright plunder of Jewish assets and later on, deportations, slave labor and extermination.

Those who could escape sought refuge in other parts of Europe and in the Americas; they managed to save themselves at great risk. Those who did not faced certain death. When the Holocaust and the Second World War ended in May 1945, three fourths of Austria’s Jews had been massacred and all of their property confiscated, either absorbed by non-Jews in Austria or dissipated, as art and other fungible assets, through domestic and international market outlets. Postwar efforts to recover expropriated property proved mostly futile for surviving Jewish family members. The Bloch Bauer paintings remained where they had been sequestered with the able assistance of pro-Nazi Austrian and German art historians and museum officials—in a Viennese museum. They hung on the walls of the Belvedere Museum for all to view and became associated with the rebirth of Austria, drawing tourists to Vienna from around the world. Gustav Klimt’s star rose until he earned a posthumous recognition as a world-class artist much like his younger colleague, Egon Schiele.

Decades later, Maria Altmann, a niece of the Bloch Bauer family who resided in California, filed a restitution claim to recover her family’s cultural property, including the two portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer, commissioned from Gustav Klimt.

Her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, fought a lengthy and protracted battle for her claim to even be heard in an American court. Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court where Mr. Schoenberg prevailed in his bid to sue the current possessor of the paintings, the Republic of Austria, in an American court. In the end, the Austrian government was compelled to restitute five Klimt works to Maria Altmann. By 2005, the commercial value of the paintings had accrued to more than 300 million dollars, a staggering sum of money by anyone’s standards.

Once restituted, Ms. Altmann sold the paintings in November 2006 through the Christie’s auction house in New York. An anonymous buyer aggressively pursued by telephone the “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II” starting at 74 million dollars and pressing upwards until 87 million dollars capped the anonymous bidder’s quest to acquire Adele II.

In 2014, Adele II was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it hung on the 5th floor.

The global art dealer, Larry Gagosian, spotted the painting.

One of his clients, a wealthy Chinese investor, offered 100 million dollars for the Klimt masterpiece. The anonymous owner countered with 150 million dollars. as an acceptable sales price.

The deal was consummated, thus doubling Adele II’s value in ten years. News of the transaction revealed that the anonymous buyer in 2006 was none other than Oprah Winfrey, global talk show maven, personality and role model.  Oprah Winfrey’s desire for anonymity is consistent with standard practices in the art world whereby it is considered to be no one’s business who buys what from whom. Unfortunately, such built-in opacity, disguised as a respectful quest for privacy, casts a lasting cloak of mystery over most art transactions which produces a shield that enables trafficking in illicitly acquired objects and trading in objects whose provenance is highly questionable.

Every private buyer, in an unregulated market such as the art market, has the right to treat his/her acquisitions of art, even high-priced art, as he/she sees fit.  Nevertheless, it would have been a historical moment had Ms. Winfrey announced that she had acquired the Bloch Bauer portrait in 2006.  Perhaps I am making the wrong assumption here, whereby the history of the painting moved her and fueled her quest to acquire this Klimt masterpiece, regardless of the cost. It may be that she merely viewed  "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II" as a beautiful art object for which she was determined to spend as much money as it took to make it hers and to profit from its resale a decade later in an astute business transaction involving a Chinese buyer. It could very well be that the painting’s history was not the motivating factor in her decision to acquire Adele II. However harsh that may sound, it is a real possibility. Her silence in this matter makes it difficult to weigh in on either side of this conundrum.

Looted works of art, regardless of their value, function as perennial esthetic symbols of and silent witnesses to a painful history tainted by genocide which engulfed millions of lives over a twelve-year period; the tragic destinies of the victims are forever intertwined with and embodied in these objects.

When these looted objects are traded on the international marketplace, sometimes for substantial sums of money, the sale itself becomes the event and supplants the history of the object, thus stripping it of its painful past. The plundered object loses its context, much like an antique piece illegally removed from its matrix. The sale works like an anesthetic; it deadens history, it whitewashes like cleanser the oftentimes twisted and tragic context through which the object evolved before reaching us.
It makes me wonder: why should I care so much about the history of these objects which, oftentimes, are reduced to---objects without a past, adornments, some more extraordinary than others?

Why teach history? Why share knowledge? why the urge to contextualize works and objects of art, to restore their history, their stories?

Will the Chinese buyer who has spent 150 million dollars to own the “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II” even care about the history of this object? Will it remind him, however remotely, of the millions of art objects which suffered a similar, if not worse fate, as they were plundered by Japanese Imperial forces on the Chinese mainland between 1931 and 1946? Does any of this matter?

A teachable moment has once again vanished like sand flowing between one’s fingers, sacrificed on the altar of money.

Rest assured, however, that 87 million dollars, 150 million dollars, do not, cannot and will not erase the taint of persecution and genocide from these looted objects.