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On the trail of tainted art

A historian is in increasing demand to establish the ownership of valuable works stolen during the Holocaust.

May 19, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

They are works of art that defined European drawing rooms, that lent elegance to family milestones like births, weddings and deaths. But the art was also a mute witness to other mortal dramas: the arrival of Nazi troops who pulled paintings off walls and sent their owners to die in Adolf Hitler's concentration camps.

Today the heirs of these stolen paintings are coming forward in record numbers, sending ripples throughout the art world.

Prudent art-auction houses and dealers are turning increasingly to Holocaust art theft experts such as Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register in London -- who made a two-day swing through Los Angeles last week -- to avoid representing art whose tainted past could render it difficult to sell, or trigger an international public relations disaster.

Jackson, an art historian, said the issue of provenance, the record of an artwork's ownership, is being redefined by the Holocaust claims, including several high-profile cases by heirs in California.

"In the past, provenance was important to establish value. Today, provenance is taking center stage because of liability," Jackson told a roomful of lawyers, customs officials, professional mediators and plaintiffs in Holocaust art cases, at the Beverly Hills Bar Assn. "The law is changing slowly, but remorselessly, in favor of the victim. Once there is a known Holocaust survivor of a known work of art, it becomes virtually unsalable.

"For commercial art dealers, the choice is stark, because the buyers will choose an alternative that is not a tainted work of art."

Jackson is the historic claims director of the Art Loss Register, the world's largest private international database for looted or lost art, collectibles and antiquities. The register traces provenance for those in the art trade to law enforcement.

Behind many Holocaust art claims, she said, lie deep personal losses and family tragedies, and many families pursue artworks in part to piece together a world that was forever lost to them.

"They want tangible links to lives that were decimated," she said. "Some of the stories you hear are very difficult."

The Art Loss Register began its Holocaust division five years ago, when such claims began to increase. Today it gets several inquiries a week concerning art that went missing during World War II. The register posts claims free of charge for works lost in the Holocaust. It charges $50 for a search certificate for collectors, dealers and museums -- a document that can help them demonstrate that they made a good-faith effort to avoid acquiring or selling tainted art.

It was Jackson's expert sleuthing that determined that a UC Berkeley law student, Thomas C. Bennigson, was the heir of the original owner of a valuable Picasso painting -- "Femme en Blanc" (Woman in White) -- that a Chicago socialite recently tried to sell.

To establish the painting's history, Jackson pored over an old letter, a diary and a photograph of the painting that showed it hanging in a neo-Classical 1930s foyer. She determined that the true owner was a woman who had left it with a Parisian art dealer for safekeeping when she fled Germany. It was stolen by the Nazis when the art dealer's home was looted.

In December 2001, a French art dealer who was considering acquiring the painting contacted the Art Loss Register about the Picasso.

In 2002, the register notified Marilynn Alsdorf, who had purchased the painting with her husband in 1975 from the Stephen Hahn Gallery in New York for $357,000. Within months the register located Bennigson. Alsdorf entered into settlement talks, but after the talks foundered late in 2002, Bennigson filed suit in Los Angeles federal court. The case is unresolved.

In another case, Jackson was able to track down the heirs and the history of a valuable Dutch marine painting by Ludolf Backhuysen, "A Man-O-War and Other Ships Off the Dutch Coast," leading to compensation for its theft so the Detroit Institute of the Arts could acquire it in good faith in 2002.

Often, Jackson said, extensive records exist on works of art, though finding them can be difficult. "The amazing thing is that the Nazis were incredible bureaucrats and the paper trail is pretty astonishing," she said.

One reason for the upsurge in claims, experts say, is the tremendous increase in the value of art and the subsequent higher profile of lost works. Perhaps the best-known Southern California case involves Maria Altmann of West Los Angeles, who values her six lost paintings by Gustav Klimt at $150 million. Her attorney, Randol Schoenberg, refers to one of them, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," as the "Austrian Mona Lisa."

Altmann, 87, sought for years to arbitrate with Austria over the paintings, which are owned by its national museum, before filing a case against that country in U.S. federal court. Now, the Austrian government, which says U.S. courts have no jurisdiction on the issue, has asked for a stay as it prepares to petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Altmann says she would be content with financial restitution and removal of the paintings to the American museums of her choice.

"The 'Portrait of Adele' should be in a museum," said Altmann, who was present at the bar association presentation. "It should be seen by the public and by the world. But I don't want it in Austria. It's the whole idea of the injustice."

Altmann's long battle to regain control of her family's artwork, says Jackson, signals the complexity of the process.

Establishing that a work of art has been looted, she said, is only the beginning. Particularly as paintings have increased in value, their current owners are willing to spend time and money in legal procedures that can exhaust the resources and the life spans of elderly claimants.

"It is a traumatic process to pursue a picture," she said. "You've got to be quite courageous to do it."

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