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Art Auction Controversy

DW staff (rar/nda)November 10, 2006

It was a night of record-breaking prices, restituted Nazi-looted artworks and controversial removals at auction house Christie's fall sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York on Wednesday night.

"Berlin Strassenszene" from 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is seen in the Bruecke museum in Berlin
Kirchner's Berlin Strassenszene, one of the looted works, went for double the expected priceImage: AP

Generating a total of $491.5 million (383.5 million euros), the auction was dominated by four Nazi-looted works by Gustav Klimt restored to their rightful heirs that raked in nearly $200 million, and one restituted Ernst Ludwig Kirchner which sold for almost double the asking price.

Maria Altmann, the niece of the Austrian couple Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer who lost the Klimts to the Nazis in World War II, raised a total of $192.7 million from the sale of the four paintings, a staggering sum she will share with her children and grandchildren.

The four Klimt paintings, led by the portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer II" which itself set a record as the third-highest auction sale ever at $88 million, were sold at almost twice as much as had been offered for them on the open market.

Relative of rightful owners hope for paintings to go public

Gustav Klimt Adele Bloch-Bauer II versteigert
Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer II sold for $88 million at auctionImage: AP

Altmann told reporters that she hoped at least some of the Klimts would end up on museum walls or at other publicly accessible display. "My family and I are delighted to see these treasured paintings find new homes," she said in a statement after the sale in which she called the restitution "a landmark case." Altmann added that she hoped the new owners would "build on the tradition of appreciation" her aunt and uncle had maintained.

Christie's President Marc Porter said the staggering prices paid for the Klimts showed how important the restitution issue was in the art world. Often looted works like those on show at Christies are returned in pristine condition and generate huge demand due their previous unavailability on the open market. Many have hung in museums and galleries since the 1940s, Porter added.

The sale of the Klimts was evidence that "putting reasonable estimates on works that are fresh to the market is just paying off in unimaginable ways," Porter told reporters.

Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene", another Nazi-looted work restituted to the rightful heirs, rocketed to a price of $38.1 million, making it the sale's fourth-highest priced work and contributed to the auction's billing as the biggest in history.

"The results were completely phenomenal, and beyond our wildest expectations," said Christopher Burge, Christie's honorary chairman and the sale's auctioneer. "Everything, at every level. It was just extraordinary across the board. I've never seen a sale like this."

Picasso withdrawn over ownership wrangle

The blue period portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto, 1903, by Pablo Picasso
Picasso's famous painting was a last minute withdrawlImage: AP

As well as record-breaking prices and the allure of art appropriated during the Third Reich, the auction had a taste of the controversial when one of the star lots, Picasso's $50 million Blue Period portrait of Angel Fernandez do Soto, was pulled by British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber after an 11th-hour claim and litigation over its rightful title.

Lloyd Webber decided not to sell the 1903 Picasso which has been owned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation since 1995 after Julius Schöps, a descendent of Berlin banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, alleged that his relative was forced to sell the work at well below its true value under Nazi oppression in 1934.

A New York judge dismissed Schöps' court challenge on Tuesday, but Christie's said further legal maneuvers had forced it to withdraw the portrait from the sale shortly before the auction.

But auction officials said they were confident they could resolve the matter in "short order" and would be able to sell it on behalf of Lloyd Webber's foundation as planned. The proceeds had been earmarked for an unknown charity.