Christie’s takes on sale of Jewish loot

900 works of art looted from Vienna’s Jewish community and stored in a monastery since 1955 to be sold on its behalf - It may be a PR nightmare for the auctioneers


In a gesture that promises to end decades of conflict over the fate of objects looted by the Nazis during World War II, the Jewish community of Vienna will auction a large collection of those items held by the Austrian government in a monastery in the town of Mauerbach since 1955. The auction will be conducted by Christie’s in Vienna in October 1996 at a yet undetermined location.

The sale of mostly nineteenth-century genre and academic paintings is expected to take in only $3 to $4.5 million, but its importance lies in the agreement between a national government and a persecuted minority that marks a new step in efforts toward restitution of cultural objects looted during World War II.

As a preparation for the sale, the Austrian government has transferred ownership of the around 900 paintings, sculptures and other objects to the Viennese Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien). The Jewish Community, which chose Christie’s over Sotheby’s and the Dorotheum in Vienna, will establish a foundation with the proceeds and distribute the income to various charities. Of that money, 88% will go to Jewish charities and 12% to non-Jewish charities, reflecting an estimation of the pillaging of Jewish and non-Jewish property. An international committee will decide how the funds are to be distributed annually “to victims of the Holocaust and their offspring”. Jewish Community officials have proposed that this committee be headed by Ronald Lauder, former US ambassador to Austria, the new chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a leading patron of Jewish philanthropic projects.

About 7,000 Jews live in Austria today. Few of them are descendants of the pre-war Jewish population of more than 30,000. A proportion of the auction proceeds will be used to maintain the 80,000 graves in Vienna’s Jewish cemetery.

The sale is being held in Vienna, according to Robert Liska, vice president of the Jewish Community of Vienna, because “we find that this is where it belongs, from an historical framework.” But the choice of Vienna is not just intended to remind the Austrians of their Nazi past but it is also commercially adroit. Since most of the material is nineteenth-century Austrian and German art and not Judaica, Liska said, “Christie’s feels there is a interest in the southern German and Austrian region and most clients will be found here.” “These are not Rembrandts or Picassos”, remarked an official of an international Jewish organisation, who asked not to be identified. Christie’s representatives declined any comment on the forthcoming auction.

The history of the objects since the fall of the Nazis is a bitter one even by the standards of post-war restitution fights. Hoards of Nazi plunder, which included many works destined for Hitler’s monumental museum in Linz, were seized by Allied troops in 1945 and transported to collecting points in Munich. In 1955, the Allies returned the objects to Austria, under the agreement that the works or proceeds from their sale would benefit “victims of persecution by the Axis powers”, if the owners could not be found in eighteen months.

Officially, Austria saw itself as such a victim and held the 8,500 or so works in near-secrecy until pressured to publish a list of the “heirless” objects in a local paper. Visiting the art repositories was out of the question. Moreover, when claims of ownership were made, Austrian courts required such rigorous proof that few objects were ever returned. After 1972, Austria assumed full ownership of the works, and distributed some throughout museums and official buildings.

Only when the press outside Austria reported these practices in detail did policy start to change. The current accord reflects a decade-long campaign by Jewish groups.

The exact location of the sale has not been set, although the Jewish Community seeks an official venue that would ensure high visibility. “We are negotiating with several museums. We’re having the support of the Austrian authorities to do it in a public place, in one of those museums.”

Christie’s will handle the sale for no seller’s commission, Liska said. The auction house’s expenses in organising and promoting the event will be paid by the Jewish community in Vienna. The Jewish community will also receive a commission for conducting the auction. Sotheby’s and the Dorotheum had also offered to handle the sale for no seller’s commission, Liska added, but, “we felt that Christie’s was most enthusiastic about the matter. What this sale also needs is international marketing, and we thought they could devote the most time to it and the most attention.” It was also felt that Sotheby’s was too involved with the Baden-Baden sale to have started cataloguing the Austrian objects in time.

Marketing the Holocaust-tainted works may be a struggle for Christie’s, warns Willi Korte, a veteran observer of restitution disputes. For certain collectors, the very fact that the objects were in Nazi hands could enhance their value, but the works are “not breathtaking, so they will have to pump the sale up pr-wise. As for the provenance, the Austrian government sat on them, and before that the Americans held them, and before that the Nazis plundered them. One has to assume that the original owners of these items could not be identified because they were murdered by the Nazis.” Christie’s has already consulted outside experts for help in navigating the sale through public opinion.

Korte expects claims of ownership to multiply once the sale catalogues are published and heirs learn which objects were held. “We have a full guarantee and the indemnity of the Austrian government as to title”, Robert Liska insists, “and only those properties were transferred to us that were clear as far as every legal recourse goes. We are not getting any of the properties that were the subject of claims in the courts, but only those properties that are in effect 100% in the ownership of the Austrian government”.

“These are practically all the properties that cannot be returned because there are no owners”, according to Liska. In the Viennese courts, however, some individual works are the subject of claims by twenty different claimants, lawyers say.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Christie’s gets mission impossible'