In 1998 she successfully applied to the Austrian government for the return of some 230 works of art which the Nazis had looted from her family and which, after the war, the Austrian state had declined to return to the Rothschilds.
The subsequent sale of the items by Christie’s in London in 1999 raised nearly £58m, almost three times as much as expected and the then highest total for a single-owner sale in Europe. Notable among the paintings were three portraits by the Haarlem artist Frans Hals, including his splendid Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman, 1634, which, estimated to fetch £2.5m to £3.5m, went for £8.2m. Yet as so often with a Rothschild collection it was examples of the applied arts that were of exceptional distinction.
A Louis XVI long-case clock with an astronomical perpetual calendar made by the finest craftsmen in Paris (movement by Ferdinand Berthoud; case by Balthazar Lieutaud; ormolu mounts by Philippe Caffieri) and supplied to the duc de Choiseul fetched £1.9m, a world record price for a clock. A commode made by Jean-Henri Riesener for Louis XVI—a piece that the king liked so much that he moved it from Fontainebleau to the new library he was building for himself at Versailles—sold for £7m, a world record auction price for a piece of French furniture, and went back to Versailles.
One of the highest prices obtained was for The Rothschild Prayerbook, an exquisitely illuminated early 16th-century Flemish Book of Hours that fetched almost £8.6m, a world record for a manuscript. A 16th-century Tabriz medallion carpet sold for £1.6m, setting a new world record for a carpet. In all, more than 20 records were set in the course of the auction, with more than 14 lots selling for more than £1m. Yet 18 months beforehand no one had foreseen that a such a sale would ever take place, least of all Bettina Looram.
She was born Bettina von Rothschild on 31 October 1924, the elder daughter of Baron Alphonse von Rothschild and his English wife Clarice, the daughter of Edmund Sebag-Montefiore. Within the family circle Bettina would always be known as Betty. With her brother Albert (who died young in 1938) and sister Gwendoline, she grew up in Vienna, on Theresianumgasse, in a large townhouse designed by Jean Girette and filled with works of art. Holidays were spent on a 30,000-acre sporting estate that belonged to Bettina’s father at Langau, in the mountains of Lower Austria.
The house on Theresianumgasse had been built for Bettina’s bachelor great-uncle Nathaniel who dedicated his energies to collecting. On his death, the property devolved on Bettina’s grandfather’s (Albert’s) three sons—Alphonse, Louis and Eugène. When Bettina was growing up in Vienna, it was her uncle Louis who ran the bank and other business concerns, including a vast coal and iron mining complex in Czechoslovakia which, along with the other Rothschild possessions, the Nazis had firmly in their sights when they walked into Austria in 1938.
Escaping the Nazis
At the time of the Anschluss on 12 March, it so happened that Bettina’s parents were in London, attending a philatelic exhibition to which Alphonse had loaned some material. Eugène was out of the country too. Alarmed by reports of the situation, on 11 March Alphonse and Clarice telegraphed Vienna to tell their staff to take Bettina and her sister to Switzerland at once. The girls and their nannies had reached Innsbruck when, at 6am on 12 March, they heard the order “All Jews off the train” shouted from the station platform. Bettina, then aged 13, feared the worst.
“They took us to the police station and put us in a cell,” she remembered. “I knew we just had to keep going. We played word games until four in the afternoon. And then they opened the door and said we could go. We were very relieved—and the nannies were hysterical of course.” The release of the party, it later became clear, was the result of the arrest by the Gestapo of the far more valuable Baron Louis, who had been trapped in Vienna and was to be held in custody, pending completion of the confiscation of all the family’s property within Hitler’s Reich, for more than a year.
Of the works of art, the finest were earmarked for the great museum Hitler was planning to build in Linz. Following the outbreak of war, however, the Rothschild collections were packed up and sent for storage in old salt mines in Alt Aussee, in a part of Austria that, after the Allied victory in 1945, was to be placed under American control. Bettina and Gwendoline and their parents, in the meantime, left Europe for America in 1940, settling in an apartment on Park Avenue in New York, where they were joined by various other Rothschild refugees from Europe, including Louis and Eugène.
At a party her parents gave in 1942, Bettina met the man she was to marry the next year. This was Matthew Looram, then serving in the US Army, 13th Airborne Division, who after the war joined the US Foreign Service. His postings would take him and Bettina to Rome, Paris, Asmara (Eritrea), Washington, DC (where they had a house in Georgetown), Dahomey (now Benin) and Somalia; but it was just after Looram had been accepted into the State Department in the spring of 1947 that Clarice, by now a widow, persuaded him to obtain leave to go to Austria to try to get back her family’s works of art.
Recovering the collection
Bettina had already accompanied her mother and uncle Louis on a post-war visit to Vienna to see what could be salvaged of their former possessions. The Vienna residences had been occupied by the Gestapo—there were bloodstains on the walls of Bettina’s old nursery—and their rightful owners did not want them back. “They wanted to get rid of them,” Bettina recalled, and so the town houses were sold for a pittance (and later demolished). Of various country properties Clarice decided to keep was Langau, though it was then in the Russian zone, and she requested the return of Alphonse’s art collection.
The Austrian authorities agreed to return the paintings and other objects, but pointed to a law that prohibited their export. Subsequently, a deal was worked out whereby in return for “donating” approximately one third of her collection to Austria’s museums Clarice would be allowed to export the rest. In the salt mines in Alt Aussee in 1947 Matthew Looram entered a huge underground hall filled with Nazi loot from all over Europe, including a section filled with paintings labelled “AR” (for Alphonse Rothschild) and “LR” (for Louis). “God bless German organisation,” he remarked.
Getting the works of art released and shipped out of the country was a tortuous process. It began with a large and valuable painting of madame de Pompadour by François Boucher. The picture was crated up and concealed beneath farm machinery as it went on a freight train through the Russian zone. Its safe arrival on the other side prompted Matthew Looram to telegraph his mother-in-law with the word “Geronimo”. By the end of 1947, many of the Rothschilds’ works of art had been exported via Switzerland, but not those retained by the Austrian state as the price of the deal. And there matters stood for 50 years.
Having returned with her husband to live at Langau in the 1970s, in early 1998 Bettina Looram read in a newspaper that, in response to growing pressure, Austria’s minister of culture had directed the country’s museums to identify any items in their collections that had been taken or extorted by the Nazis from the Jews, as a preliminary to handing such items back to the heirs. Thinking it might just be worth investigating, Bettina Looram rang the minister’s office, and within a few minutes the minister came on the line. Thereafter, things moved quickly, culminating in the London sale the following year.
Matthew Looram died at Langau in 2004. Bettina Looram died there on 10 November 2012. They are survived by a son and a daughter.
Author of Plutocrats: a Rothschild Inheritance
(John Murray 2007)