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Brushes with the law

(From the left) Gustav Klimt's Church in Cassone - Landscape With Cypresses (est 12-18m), Paul Cezanne's Pichet et fruits sur une table (est 10-15m) and the sculpture Walking Man, by Alberto Giacometti, (est 12-18m) at Sotheby's London auction rooms.


Klimt’s ‘Church in Cassonne’

Gustav Klimt’s ‘Litzlberg Am Attersee’ is an opulent and beautiful painting, a testament to the lush Attersee lake in western Austria where the artist spent his summers. It’s part of a series of landscapes that comprise around a quarter of Klimt’s body of work: they stand in contrast to the elaborate art nouveau portraits he is best known for, but they are still compelling. Mosaic-like, with subtly-modulated greens and blues, ‘Litzlberg Am Attersee’ bears the unmistakeable stamp of Klimt’s genius.

Until last year, it was property of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg. Like other Klimt works  hanging peacefully on walls across the world, it was worth millions, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Not that this would normally matter; usually, we’re too preoccupied with the art itself to ask any questions about why it hangs where it hangs. But a painting’s past can sometimes be far more complex than meets the eye. And ‘Litzlberg Am Attersee’ is a rare work of art whose history threatened, momentarily, to outshine its beauty.

Litzlberg was originally bought direct from Klimt himself by prominent Viennese art patrons Viktor and Paula Zuckerkandl. On their death in 1927, Viktor’s sister Amalie inherited part of their collection – including Litzlberg and another Klimt landscape, ‘Church in Cassone’ – but when she and her daughter Mathilde were deported to Lodz in Poland in 1941, the paintings were confiscated by the Gestapo. After the war, Litzlberg found its way back into circulation and by 1944 was part of a museum collection in Salzburg. But ‘Church in Cassone’ disappeared until 1962, when it turned up in an exhibition in Graz as part of a private collection.

Having hung innocently in these collections for more than six decades, the two paintings became the subjects of a restitution case brought a few years ago by Mathilde’s son, Georges Jorisch, now over 80 and living in Montreal. Jorisch’s claim that they were his family’s property kicked off a period of intensive research.

While the claim seemed to start on shaky ground – being based solely on his memory of seeing the two paintings hanging either side of a bay window at his great-uncle’s Purkersdorf Sanatorium property near Vienna – it nevertheless lit a fuse. Over the next few years, researchers dug into archives to reconstruct the paintings’ pre-war ownership and exhibition history. In 2010, they verified that Jorisch’s claim was correct. Sotheby’s then sold the pieces on his behalf; ‘Church in Cassonne’ went for £26.9m in February 2010, and ‘Litzlberg Am Attersee’ sold for £25.4m on 2nd November 2011 – with the proceeds divided between the Salzburg Museum of Modern Art, the previous owner of ‘Church in Cassonne’ and Jorisch himself.

“We’re normally too preoccupied with the art itself to ask any questions about why it hangs where it hangs”

Lucian Simmons, Head of the Worldwide Restitution Department at Sotheby’s, knows how difficult it can be to return Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners. When ownership claims like Jorisch’s come up, Sotheby’s enters a long process of due diligence. According to Simmons, it’s easier when it’s an important work that’s at stake. The Zuckerkandls’ Klimts had published exhibition histories and were unique works of art, rather than being prints or copies made by an artist or their studio. These factors were of crucial importance. But in every case, experts have to scour all available archives. It’s a process that can take years and can span the globe, piecing together a story otherwise lost to history. Discovering provenance is an art in itself.

In 1998, the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets marked a turning point for the art world. Betw Ian Nicholson/PA Wire een 1933 and 1945, the Nazis stole around 60,000 pieces of art from private collections and museums throughout Europe – and it wasn’t just art they took; it was sculptures, tapestries, rare books, furniture… Swathes of this stolen art disappeared entirely; some of it was restituted as soon as World War II ended; some of it somehow snaked its way back into the circuit. But provenance issues weren’t an international priority until this conference. It was the first widespread, coherent attempt to address the issue of rightful ownership, resulting in delegates from 40 governments establishing a non-binding consensus to use all possible efforts to identify art confiscated by the Nazis and restitute it to its pre-War owners or their heirs.

Circuitous as this seems, at least in the case of Nazi-looted art, the ethics are clear. There’s little argument around rightful provenance; if the original owners of Nazi-looted art can be ascertained, the art must immediately be returned either to them or, more likely, to their heirs. Of course, there are always tougher situations – cases of museums that have received donated art which later turns out to be looted, for example – and it’s not always easy to get them to give it up.

On 21st August 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian painter and decorator, emerged from the cupboard where he had been hiding all night, prised the ‘Mona Lisa’ from her frame and walked out of the Louvre. It was 24 hours before anyone noticed the painting was missing and it wasn’t seen again for two years. At his trial, Peruggia explained the theft was an act of patriotism – returning the Mona Lisa to her homeland as retribution for Napoleon’s plundering of Italian artworks.

“Billions of dollars of stolen work are constantly traversing the world, and the black market and the legal market are fully intertwined”

It’s rare to find unanimous agreement over the ethical questions that provenance claims entail. In his book ‘Hot Art’, Toronto-based writer Joshua Knelman dives headfirst into the art world and discovers not only that complex provenance issues are endemic, but that most people prefer them that way. “Over the course of the last century, so much stolen art was absorbed by the legitimate market that if the stolen goods were identified, the industry would be forced to re-evaluate the entire way it operated,” he says.

The more you peel back the layers of the black market in art, the clearer the bigger picture becomes – billions of dollars of stolen work are constantly traversing the world, and the black market and the legal market are fully intertwined. At some point along the path from theft to middlemen, dealer and ultimately collector, a piece of art re-enters the legal market. At some point, it passes into the unwitting hands of someone who doesn’t know it’s stolen. This marks the moment of it becoming ‘legal’ again. And because there are no regulations to insist otherwise, its history will always be fudged, incomplete or erased, perfectly smoothing over the moment of passage from black to ‘real’ market.

Any link in the chain could be blamed for this wayward attitude towards provenance. But Knelman believes a huge stumbling block lies with “the inability of dealers, galleries and museums to adhere to a sensible system of provenance checks on the artwork they acquire”.

There are some, like Sotheby’s, who pour time and resources into due diligence, but they are the exception. Another stumbling block is that this is a world in which the criminal expertise of invisible networks – and some of the individuals within them – far outweighs legal, regulatory and policing resources. “The criminal network is international, sophisticated and organized,” Knelman says.“Police aren’t trained to investigate art thefts, and lawyers aren’t trained to prosecute them”.

The art world’s detectives are most often solo workers, singlemindedly dedicated to pursuing art theft: “They have to carve out a special place for themselves, usually battling department politics and fighting for resources,” says Knelman. “But a few well-focused resources to the right detective yields incredible results.”

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, head of the FBI Art Crime Team, puts the onus for ascertaining ownership history squarely on the collector. “It’s the collector’s responsibility to provide the next buyer with information on ownership,” she insists. This might be so, but few are heeding her words. There’s far too much art swimming around the circuit with murky provenance issues; attempts at regulation would cause chaos. And besides, as long as these fissures and cracks in a piece’s history don’t require explanation, everyone keeps on making money.

One way of keeping track is the Art Loss Register, a database that was originally set up by art and insurance professionals in 1976 as an art theft archive. A decade later, with more than 20,000 records on its books, this archive was turned into a database and its contents were opened to international law enforcement agencies. In the early ’90s, the Art Loss Register was moved to London – and now it’s the largest global private database of lost or stolen art, antiques and collectables, with more than 250,000 registered items. This towering index of information works as an all-round due diligence service – functioning as a search tool, it allows buyers and sellers to check against any suspicions of illegitimate ownership. Its value is undeniable; so far, it has been instrumental in the recovery of more than £120 million worth of stolen items, especially higher-value works.

“The painting is quickly recovered when a member of staff spots a package in the bicycle basket of a man cycling nearby”

It’s 1973. Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob De Gheyn III is stolen for the second time since 1966 from Dulwich Picture Gallery. The painting is quickly recovered when a member of staff spots a package about the size of the painting in the bicycle basket of a man cycling nearby. When stopped, the man explains that whenever he wants to look at the painting, the gallery is closed, so he’s taken it home to copy. He would, he says, have returned it straight away. The picture – dubbed the ‘takeaway Rembrandt’ – will go on to be stolen twice more, in 1981 and 1983.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 1966

Charles Hill, a former Metropolitan Police detective responsible for the Art and Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard between 1994 and 1996, warns that there’s another problem to think of alongside that of stolen art. “There are serious problems not just with organised gangs who steal masterpieces, but also with fakes and forgeries,” he says. He insists that the true nature of art theft is far from the sexy celluloid vision of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ – there’s no glamorous criminal genius presiding over spectacular heists. Instead, it’s a mesh of invisible networks shifting fakes and lower-value items around the world, often to use them as bargaining chips for other kinds of crime. “The moral dubiousness doesn’t stop until you get to a court of law,” he concludes ruefully.

While theft of masterpieces might be trickier these days, fakes continue to circulate widely and lower-value pieces are still pilfered on a daily basis. Together, they comprise the huge mass of dodgy art swimming around out there. And as long as there are too few resources dedicated to spotting forgeries, or to cracking down on the criminal networks who push pieces around the world, they’ll remain nice little earners for a long time to come.

Rembrandt’s Jacob de Gheyn III

 ‘Hot Art’ is published in the US by D&M Publishers. Having been stolen from Dulwich Picture Gallery four times since 1966, Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob De Gheyn III is the most recorded stolen artwork in history. The ‘Mona Lisa’ was not one of the artworks stolen by Napoleon – it was bought from the artist by King François I for 4,000 écus.

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