How should billionaire Ronald Lauder be understood; philanthropist, restitution advocate, leader or naive temporiser?

The heir to the cosmetics fortune is creating his own museum and would like to see art returned to Holocaust victims, but how effective is he actually?


Ronald Lauder is a man who cannot be ignored. As with most rich men, politicians pay attention to him. As with most rich men who collect art, he is courted by museums that would like to own his art some day. And if Mr Lauder has his way, he will be responsible for the return of thousands of works of art to the heirs of Holocaust victims from whom they were seized. Yet in the two years since he formed an organisation to achieve this, Mr Lauder’s crusade has been mired in conflict.

Mr Lauder (b. 1944) is heir to a cosmetics fortune that his mother, Estée Lauder, created at her kitchen table in Queens, New York. According to Forbes Magazine, which ranks the wealthiest men in America, Mr Lauder’s net worth last year was more than $4 billion. Mr Lauder’s wealth has made him a major philanthropist: a funder of Jewish schools and social services in Eastern Europe and a collector who currently holds the position of chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, a post given to large contributors whose art the museum covets. Jewish leaders say that Mr Lauder’s funding is crucial to the survival of Jewish culture in the former East Bloc and Germany.

Mr Lauder is also active in politics and contributes to the candidacy of conservative Republicans. During the Reagan administration, he was US ambassador to Austria, and deserves much of the credit for forcing the Austrians ten years later to auction thousands of works of art taken from Jews and held since the war’s end at a monastery in Mauerbach. He also ran an unsuccessful far-right campaign in 1989 for the Republican nomination for mayor of New York.

More recently, Mr Lauder has led a bid to create telecommunications firms in the former East Bloc. His disputes with former Czech partners have resulted in a crossfire of multi-million-dollar lawsuits and angry full-page advertisements in US newspapers urging investors to shun the Czech Republic.

Mr Lauder’s initiation into art collecting has become something of a legend. At the age of fourteen, the young man took the $10,000 that he received for his bar mitzvah and bought an Egon Schiele self-portrait. It is not known just how many works by Schiele Mr Lauder now owns, but one source called the cosmetics heir the foremost Schiele collector in the US. Later this spring, Mr Lauder plans to open the Neue Galerie, a museum for New York devoted to Austrian and German art from the early part of this century drawn from Mr Lauder’s collection and that of the late dealer, Serge Sabarsky.

Mr Lauder’s latest avocation is art restitution. Two years ago, when the World Jewish Congress was pressuring Swiss banks to return deposits to the heirs of Jews who left money there before going to the gas chambers, Mr Lauder took an interest in the return of art that the Nazis had seized from Jews and that had never been returned—some 110,000 works worth $10/30 billion, he said. In late 1997 he founded the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress. Despite its official-sounding title, this “commission” is the creation of one man.

Mr Lauder is no stranger to restitution, since he collects the kinds of works of art—arms and armour and fin-de-siècle Viennese painting—that tend to figure on lists of unrecovered objects. The collector himself was the target of a recovery claim in 1996, when Italian authorities were tipped off that a ceremonial sixteenth-century shield they were seeking was hanging above Mr Lauder’s desk; the “Targa Ovata,” thought to have been looted by Allied troops during World War II, was immediately returned to the Musei Civici of Bologna. Mr Lauder had bought the shield from a “respected London dealer” in 1982.

Mr Lauder’s role in restitution combines his two fields of philanthropy: art and Judaism—or does it? When the Commission of Art Recovery (CAR) was created late in 1997 there were two models to follow: the pursuit of individual claims and the pursuit of national strategies to return the value of heirless property to the Jewish community, as at Mauerbach. Despite Lauder’s resources, CAR decided not to support individual claims and pursued a third strategy: compiling a database of losses and comparing that database with inventories of museums to locate works.

But a few months into CAR’s existence, its priorities were unclear. In January 1998, two works by Egon Schiele on loan to the Museum of Modern Art from the state-funded Leopold Foundation in Vienna were impounded in New York by the District Attorney on the suspicion that they were looted from Jews during the Nazi era. Two families in the New York area claimed the works. Rather than support an investigation into the Schieles’ provenance in the US, CAR called the sub poena “ill-advised,” and urged the return of the pictures to Austria, where ownership claims for war loot, expensive to file in Austrian courts, have rarely been successful (The Art Newspaper No. 100, February 2000, p.48).

Fears arose that art restitution funded by Mr Lauder would be limited to the defence of the museum he chaired. In fact, CAR pushed ahead with the promise of a database tracking art in museums in the US and Europe and searching those lists for unrecovered works looted by the Nazis. Progress in this has not been fast, however.

Soon came another challenge for CAR, a claim by the Goodman family (formerly Gutmann, heirs to the Dresdner Bank fortune) that a Degas pastel monotype sent by the family to Paris for safekeeping in the late 1930s and allegedly looted by the Nazi agency Einsatztab Reichsleier Rosenberg, had been traced to the collection of Daniel Searle, a wealthy benefactor of the Art Institute of Chicago. The claim seemed as solid as could be, but CAR played no role in helping the Goodmans. After a hugely expensive legal fight, the Goodmans agreed to a complicated settlement in which the Art Institute of Chicago bought the picture, half from Searle, half from the Goodman family.

Earlier this year, CAR, against its own declared rules, supported an individual claimant, Martha Nierenberg, heir to the Herzog collection of some 2,500 works of art looted by the Nazis, who is suing the Hungarian State and two museums in Budapest where some of the works are now held. “Mr Lauder felt he had to do something,” a CAR staffer explained to puzzled observers. Insiders suspect that the lawsuit got CAR’s support to push Hungary to the bargaining table.

Last autumn, it appeared that CAR’s database was producing results. Acting on a tip from researchers, CAR tracked “Madonna and Child in landscape,” attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder (est. $450,000), to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, which had it since 1984. The picture was claimed by two elderly sisters, grand-nieces of Philipp von Gomperz, a Viennese Jew who fled Austria in 1938. CAR’s tracing of the work fell short of any support to recover it, but through the New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office (a department of the New York State Banking Commission), North Carolina was pressured to agree to return the work.

At the end of the year, despite the discovery of the Cranach in North Carolina, rumours surfaced that CAR was downsizing and shifting from its focus on database monitoring to a “more efficient use of resources”, said one staffer. The Forward, a Jewish weekly, reported that CAR was foundering. MoMA’s resistance to restitution was cited in the article, which noted that “advocates of Holocaust survivors and heirs are hard-pressed to say that the commission has accomplished anything.” The Forward quoted Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, urging that CAR “function for the benefit of the Jewish people; I think what’s clear at this point is that it has not lived up to its expectations.” (CAR’s two remaining employees are forbidden to talk to the press without Mr Lauder’s written consent.)

Mr Lauder remained silent until 10 February, when he testified in Washington DC before the Committee on Banking and Financial Services of the US House of Representatives. He departed from a prepared statement to advance CAR’s new initiative: negotiations for the restitution of works in German museums, particularly the Kirstein Collection, which consists of dozens of paintings held mostly in the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig.

The collector also called for renewed pressure on Austria, which has resisted the return of Klimt paintings from the Bloch Bauer collection to a Los Angeles family claiming them—a shift in direction from Mr Lauder’s previous position that Austrians be allowed to determine the ownership of the two Schieles on loan to MoMA. The Forward mocked Mr Lauder’s volte-face.

While some question Mr Lauder’s resolve, others believe in the billionaire’s genuine good faith. “He’s just in over his head. He’s trying to do something good —I think. He didn’t have to do this after all,” said one restitution veteran. “I don’t know what he could or should be doing. If you open your doors to all comers, and say ‘here I am, this cosmetics billionaire, come and get it’, you will get mired in countless claims, some of which are bound to be of dubious merit, and fritter away both your resources and your time. So I can see why he would ideally have wanted to deal only with the big picture, but that’s a much, much harder, perhaps an impossible, thing to do.”

Critics insist that Mr Lauder may be simply missing the point, and that while he negotiates in Europe, US claimants without money twist in the wind. What claimants need most is money, says Thomas Kline, a Washington lawyer experienced in restitution and cultural property law. “Not all claimants have the resources of the Rosenbergs. I recognise that in the Jewish community there may be many other things that are more urgent than helping art theft victims. Nonetheless, if art theft victims are going to be helped, the main thing they need is financial assistance with bringing their claims. There is no organisation that serves that purpose.”

No one expects to convert Mr Lauder to this approach. Telling a billionaire to part with more money tends to be futile, since philanthropists are usually under siege from supplicants. In negotiations with the Germans, Mr Lauder may indeed pull a rabbit out of his hat. German museums and German government officials have been eager to throw off the embarrassing historical baggage of holding works of art looted from Jews. Other countries, however, such as France and the Netherlands, are still not warming to Mr Lauder’s approach, in which the collector arrives, makes demands, and expects art to be surrendered.

The real challenge for CAR may be its commitment to confronting US museums, and especially the MoMA, in the rare cases when these institutions are found to be holding or showing war loot. Which of Mr Lauder’s many hats will he wear in that capacity?

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ronald Lauder—leader or temporiser?'