Maria Altmann and the Art Nazis
Christie’s auction house recently announced that in November it will sell four paintings by the early-20th-century Austrian modernist Gustav Klimt, works whose combined estimated value is between $93 million and $140 million. The news has caused a sensation, and not only because of the fame of the artist and the size of the price tag.
The Klimts, three landscapes and a portrait, are part of a group of five turned over to Maria Altmann by the Austrian government earlier this year. They had been stolen by the Nazis along with other arts treasures owned by Jewish families, and the government of Austria had stubbornly refused to give them back. The seven-year campaign by Altmann, now 90, came to symbolize the international effort to seek property-rights justice for the surviving victims of Nazi crimes. But now that Maria Altman has finally recovered her family treasures, she is being criticized for what she wants to do with them.
Maria’s uncle, Ferdinand, was the original owner of the Klimts. Two of them are portraits of his wife, Adele. Bloch-Bauer fled his Austria in 1938 when the Nazis took over, and the Nazis seized his property, including the paintings. The Nazi government placed the Klimts in various Austrian art museums, where they remained until Austria acknowledged that they legally belonged to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s heirs.
After she recovered the paintings last winter, Maria Altmann lent them to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then to the Neue Galerie, a New York City museum for modern German and Austrian art founded by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. Then she sold what art experts regard as the most impressive of the Klimts, the first of the portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Ronald Lauder acquired the masterpiece for his museum at the whopping price of 135 million dollars.
Now Altmann is selling the rest, and some factions of the art world are calling her greedy, even going so far as to accuse her of embodying “negative Jewish stereotypes.” New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman accused her of “cashing in,” and thus transforming a “story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust” into “yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.” Kimmelman argued that the family should give the works away, perhaps giving them to public institutions:
“How refreshing this story would have been had the Bloch-Bauers conceived a way to ensure that that birch landscape, say, ended up in public hands,” he wrote. “In so doing they would have earned not just public sympathy for their family’s struggle but also an enduring share of public gratitude. They would have underscored the righteousness of their battle for restitution and in the process made clear that art, even in these money-mad days, isn’t only about money.”
Kimmelman and like-minded critics are certainly articulating a creative ethical principle, one that actually holds that it can be wrong to dispose of one’s own property as one wishes. They would have a legitimate compliant if she was, for example, determined to burn the paintings out of spite; there is a legitimate ethical argument that great works of art belong to the world as well as their legal owners, creating an obligation for those owners to take care of them and ensure that they can be enjoyed by future generations. For the same reason, the sale could be legitimately criticized if Altmann was going to put the paintings in the hands of some hysterical anti-Nazi avenger who planned on burying them or spray-painting them with acid. She has an ethical duty not to allow the art to fall into the hands of irresponsible owners, just as a dog breeder has an obligation not to sell Dalmatian puppies to Cruella DeVille. But that isn’t the criticism. Kimmelman is maintaining that it is wrong for Altmann to sell her own paintings for the best possible price to parties who will willingly pay it.
Poor Gustav Klimt! First his paintings are stolen by German Nazis, and now Art Nazis want to dictate the value of his work. Achtung, guys! The paintings belong to Maria Altman! That was what the long campaign to recover the Klimts was all about, and there is nothing wrong with her selling them at the very best price she can get.
Who knows? Maybe she doesn’t like Gustav Klimt paintings. Maybe, after all those years of fighting for the paintings in the name of justice, she never wants to see or hear about them again; after all, they represent a terrible period for her family, and her uncle, the original owner, was sent to Dachau after the Nazis took away everything he owned.
And maybe, just maybe, she feels that she can do a lot more good with a couple hundred million dollars than with five modernist paintings. I know that’s what I’d be thinking. I’m not so sure that it isn’t what Kimmelman would be thinking, too. It’s so much easier to call others greedy for taking money that is offered to them when nobody’s offering you anything at all. Somehow, all that envy bounces around in your head until it turns into self-righteousness. How dare Alex Rodriguez let the Yankees pay him 25 million dollars a year to play a kids game! How greedy the CFO of Hewlett-Packard was to let the board pay her 3.5 million dollars to be acting CEO for only forty five days! Who does Jessica Simpson think she is, accepting a couple million dollars to be in a movie? She’s no actress!
But the hard truth is, we all have the right to sell our skills, our time, our surgically-enhanced bodies and our Klimts for whatever the market will bear, and there is nothing wrong with that. Owning something means not having to get someone’s approval to do with it what we please.