Monday, October 4, 2010

Property: thoughts on Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer


Last Monday I described the experience of viewing Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I at the Neue Galerie in New York when I visited recently, and a quick sketch of the painting's history. I ended by referring to the arbitrated, 2006 recovery of this painting by Maria Altmann -- a niece of the painting's subject and her husband Ferdinand, and one of his heirs -- as a "depatriation" (the country in question being Austria). This work's ownership has presented a tangle of difficult-to-resolve principles, and today I'm going to delve a bit into these complications in the frames I considered as I viewed the painting last month.

From my cultural and historical perspective I would have a hard time arguing against the Bloch-Bauer family's right to recover possessions stolen less than 75 years ago as part of a state-run, genocidal, 'ethnic cleansing' program. My point of view is certainly influenced by the fact that I would have been subject to Nazi genocide myself had I lived in Europe during the thirties and forties.

But seeing Adele Bloch-Bauer I, having followed press coverage of Altmann's attempt to recover the portrait and sister-works, and reading the Neue Galerie curator's summary of how the painting came to New York, all set me thinking about culture, time, and property rights.

This seemed a fitting set of ideas to mull over at the end of a week's visit to eight museums and dozens of galleries up and down the island of Manhattan. Two of the museums I visited were once the palatial homes of colossally wealthy families (those of J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick) whose personal art collections form the heart of these museums' holdings. Another was built to house the collection of another colossally wealthy family (the Guggenheims), and that museum's collection was also seeded with the personal holdings of the family patriarch (Solomon R.).

The Neue Galerie itself was brought into being by contemporary wealth of wallet-numbing scale: that of Ronald S. Lauder, son of the founders of the Estée Lauder Companies. This prodigal son purchased Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I for the Neue Galerie from Maria Altmann for a rumored $135 million, then the highest price ever paid for a painting. Lauder, by the way, was chairman of New York's Museum of Modern Art for ten years, and ran for mayor of the city in 1989; he served as ambassador to Austria before that, appointed by Ronald Reagan. Forbes ranked him #124 in its most recent list of the wealthiest Americans (down one from his 2009 ranking).

Highly-regarded art inevitably hangs in the corridors of wealth (and its corollary, power) because it becomes so valuable that only very wealthy individuals and institutions can afford to buy it. As in the case of Klimt's portrait -- not to mention many cases of antiquities currently the subject of petitions and lawsuits demanding repatriation to Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Italy, and elsewhere -- valuable art also changes hands when crime and political power come into play.

Standing in the Neue Galerie I was thinking about the journey that Klimt's portrait took through two world wars and their still unsettled wakes, but also about the many, much older works of art, from antiquity to the Renaissance, that I'd been privileged to see in the the Frick Collection, the Morgan, the Cloisters, and the Met during the week I visited New York. One could think of these works as riches that, yes indeed, were amassed by ancient royalty, the Roman or Orthadox Catholic churches, seventeenth century traders, or nineteenth century industrialists -- sometimes all of these, in successive handoffs -- and now are held in trust (public or private) for access by whoever is interested to spend time viewing them. (It's worth noting that Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I was on-view at Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna for decades prior to the settlement of Altmann's claim.)

In the long view, then, what does it mean for an individual (Maria Altmann, in this case) to assert her ownership of art that is publicly accessible? Does the calculus change when that public access was enabled by a wrenching, forced, or stealthy kind of transfer, "unfair" in any frame that respects property-rights, to which a large fraction of valuable art has been subject over the centuries? What if that transfer happened at some remove from the person or institution that currently holds the work?

When does -- or should -- the "right" of an original owner to a specific work of art give way to the "right" of a people to access defining artifacts of its culture? Should the model be anything like copyright of published works, which, under U.S. law, originally expired after a maximum of 28 years, and now, under the terms of a 1998 extension to the law often referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Act," protects work for the life of its author plus 70 years?

And ... with respect to the "right" of a people ... which "people" are we talking about here? Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer were human beings, Austrians, Jews, members of an upper economic class, and also members of a society of artists and patrons that constituted an early twentieth century avant-garde. Which facet of their identities corresponds to the "people" for whom Klimt's portrait is a defining artifact?

Questions with murky answers, I'd say.

And murkier still when one attempts to reconcile the principles one might apply to ownership of art with those applied to ownership of businesses, buildings, or land. As Fortune Magazine reported, "one of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's palaces" housed Austria's state railway office until 2006, when his heirs recovered it; the building was used during World War II as a depot to send Austrian Jews to Nazi death camps.

How does all that fit in the larger picture, as it were? How might principles that permitted Bloch-Bauer's heirs to recover Nazi-confiscated art and real estate apply to land and business appropriated over the long and cruel course of history by other individuals, states, and cultures?

Do the tribes who "sold" the island of Manhattan to Peter Minuit -- or the tribes living there in 1626, which were not necessarily the same -- have a reasonable right to recover that real estate?

What of Palestinians who fled ancestral land during the "Nakba," the 1948 war that cemented the claim of the modern Israeli state to its "green line" borders and simultaneously dispossessed hundreds of thousands whose families had lived within those borders for generations? Do heirs to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel -- dispersed first by the Babylonians, then, in the first century C.E., by the Roman empire -- have precedent rights over this territory, as some assert? And what about heirs to Canaanites living on the land before the ancestors of those Judeans and Israelites, led by Joshua of the Old Testament, smote their cities with swords? Or those who were already established on these lands when Abraham first hiked down the dusty road from Ur?

My reading group happens to have chosen Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City for discussion in late October, so I'm reading it now. Perhaps his meditation on the 1453 "Fall of Constantinople" (to Westerners) or "Conquest of Istanbul" (for Easterners) as it applies to questions of property, culture, power, and the changes wrought over time is worth considering here. Pamuk writes, in Chapter 19 of his mournful memoir:

"It was Westernization and Turkish nationalism that prompted Istanbul to begin celebrating the 'Conquest.' At the beginning of the twentieth century, only half the city's population was Muslim, and most of the non-Muslim inhabitants were descendants of Byzantine Greeks. When I was a child, the view amongst the city's more vocal nationalists was that anyone who so much as used the word 'Constantinople' was an undesirable alien with irredentist dreams of the day when the Greeks who had been the city's first masters would return to chase away the Turks who had occupied it for five hundred years -- or, at the very least, turn us into second-class citizens. It was the nationalists, then, who insisted on the word 'conquest.' By contrast, many Ottomans were content to call their city Constantinople. [...] Neither President Celal Bayar nor Prime Minister Adnan Menderes attended the 500th anniversary [of the Ottoman conquest] ceremonies in 1953; although these had been many years in the planning, it was decided at the last moment that to do so might offend the Greeks and Turkey's Western allies. [...] It was, however, three years later that the Turkish state deliberately provoked what you might call 'conquest fever' by allowing mobs to rampage through the city, plundering the property of Greeks and other minorities. A number of churches were destroyed during the riots, and a number of priests were murdered, so there are many echoes of the cruelties Western historians describe in accounts of the 'fall' of Constantinople. In fact, both the Turkish and Greek states have been guilty of treating their respective minorities as hostages to geopolitics, and that is why more Greeks have left Istanbul over the past fifty years than in the fifty years following 1453."

Culture, time, property rights, power. There's a lot of resonance that can accrue to a couple square meters of canvas.



This post is the second in a two part series. The first, Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga, was published on 27 September 2010.

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