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Nazi loot

Works of art stolen from Austrian Jews by the Nazis sell out and realise $14 million, five times the estimated total

Auction was an expression of piety, not of the art market

Vienna

“How to square the circle” could have been the motto for the Mauerbach auction which took place in Vienna on 29 and 30 October with the most impressive results. The objective—to achieve the highest possible prices for these unclaimed works of art, stolen by the Nazis, to benefit surviving victims of the Holocaust—was superbly carried out by Christie’s. Happily, the wide diffusion of the catalogue also had the effect of restoring a number of works of art to their owners or their families before the sale took place.

The cache of treasures stored in the medieval monastery of Mauerbach near Vienna has a long, complicated history (see The Art Newspaper No.63, October 1996 p.35) and the Austrian government’s understandable wish to dispel any suspicion that it wanted to hold onto the “collection” has now been translated into the reality of the market.

The collaboration between private and State initiative turned this auction into a unique international media event. Ownership of unclaimed works was transferred in 1995 to the Federation of Austrian Jewish communities but the location of the sale at MAK (the Museum of Applied Arts) underlined the official approval and added further prestige to the two-day event. All players acted selflessly for the cause: Christie’s did not charge for its tremendous efforts; the international Jewish honorary committee under Ronald S.Lauder and Edgar M. Bronfman not only oversaw the arrangements on a government level step by step but made sure that the interest and involvement of Jewish communities worldwide would be translated into tangible results by bringing as many bidders as possible to Vienna.

At the reception on the eve of the auction, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky mixed with Simon Wiesenthal, Cardinal Koenig, leaders of the Jewish community and prominent members of both the Socialist and the Conservative parties.

The total of $12 million achieved by the end of the first day was four times higher than the estimate. There were no reserves and estimates were as low as was decent. The principle of a charity auction, that is, to obtain the highest possible bids for the cause rather than a realistic reflection of market values, ensured that not a single item was bought in.

The majority of works represented the taste for decorative art in pre-World War II Viennese bourgeois drawing rooms. There were small, second-rate Dutch paintings, coloured prints and watercolours of Viennese views and monuments, Austrian and German Biedermeier art, with a scattering of better known names such as Kobell and Alt; there were mediocre portraits and examples of rather restrained Jugendstil.

Out of more than a thousand lots there were no more than two dozen outstanding works, which made more than ten times the estimate. Abraham Mignon’s “Flower still life with roses and tulips” sold at $1,079,000 (estimate $74,000) and his “Still life with peaches” sold for $516,000 (estimate $46,000). A Cinquecento panel by Pietro de Francesco degli Orioli of a Madonna and Child (until recently unknown) sold for $281,000 (estimate $110,000). A Biedermeier portrait of a lady in oriental costume by Friedrich von Amerling sold at $272,000 (estimate $74,000); a portrait of a lady by Hans Makart went for $85,000 (estimate $7,400); a lady in profile by Franz von Stuck sold at $46,000 (estimate $15,000) and a lost early relief by Archipenko of 1921 sold for $425,000 (estimate $61-93,000).

An academic and artistically unassuming picture book illustration of a bearded patriarch surrounded by his children, grandchildren and cats, seated outside the house on the cobble stone pavement bore the traces of brutal mishandling. The romantic illusions evoked by such sweet and homely scenes were overshadowed by the dreadful realities of the Holocaust, ever present during this strange parade of objects.

In the end, the Mauerbach sale was a lesson in twentieth-century history and it was only natural that these objects defied the prices. A number of works will be donated to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Archive in Israel, to be kept among other testaments to one of the darkest periods in European history.

o Like the Austrian government, the French government has been accused of being sluggish in trying to trace the owners of around 2,058 unclaimed works of art looted during World War II from private, mostly Jewish collections. The director of the Musées de France, Françoise Cachin, has announced that these will all be listed and illustrated on the Internet (http://www.culture.fr in the section “Documentation: Musées nationaux Récuperation”) by the end of the year. They include paintings by Ingres, Boucher, Chardin and some Impressionists. Altogether about 60,000 works of art were looted from France, of which 45,000 were returned by 1949 and the remainder sold.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘An expression of piety, not of the art market'