Art looting has been present since the time of the Pharaoh dynasties in Egypt, the siege of Constantinople in 1204, Napoleon’s raid of Europe, Hitler’s World War II Nazi plunder and most recently the war in Iraq. Although the first attempt to repatriate artworks in modern history was in 1815 by the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, when he tried to recuperate most of the works that Napoleon had stolen from across Europe, several other permanent attempts were then made through international conventions during the second half of the 20th century. The repatriation of an artwork is not an easy task to accomplish as many of the looted works have changed hands several times, they’re often legally tied to institutions, some were never found and others are missing the proper paperwork or proof for them to be returned to the heirs of the original owners. However, there are several cases that have managed to turn heads and create indisputable shifts in the international art market. One of these was the reinstitution of five Klimt paintings to the Bloch-Bauer heir, Maria Altmann, in 2006. In general, the repatriation of artworks looted during World War II have influenced the international art market by renewing the declining Old Masters market through the works’ provenance and thus challenging to a certain extent the rapidly growing contemporary art market.
The art market has changed immensely in the past 40 years and nowadays it is unlike any other market given that it is almost absolutely controlled by branded dealers and auctioneers who make artists superstars in the blink of an eye by “placing” their work strategically in collections and museums. The market boom was created by new collectors from Russia, Asia and the Middle East that compete for “wall trophies” as for the first time since 1914 the market is a one-way street; “we are in a non-cyclical market,” claims auctioneer Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s world head of contemporary art. As a result, although the reintegration of looted masterpieces into the market does cause some stir, it doesn’t succeed in appreciating the value of the works sufficiently. Repatriated artworks from World War II don’t necessarily reach the prices for which contemporary art is sold today because art itself has a new definition, new leaders and very good publicity. It is a fact that the Old Masters market is declining whilst contemporary is thriving. This recent phenomenon of spending millions of dollars on contemporary art began in the 1960’s with the commercialization of Pop Art. “Art is a permanent revolution”, says Fernando Botero; as a result, the sudden change in taste is no surprise as everything in art is a trend. No matter how powerful a movement may be, there will always be another coup d’etat so to say. The art market is the only remaining market at a global level that is so unregulated. Nowadays young artists are the exploited stars in our capitalist market. Consequently, when unique masterpieces such as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, comes up for sale, all head turn because it’s a breath of fresh air in a market plagued by endless quantities of factory made, branded art. Art today is mostly not made by the artists themselves but by assistants; their creations don’t require talent, simply originality and shock value. Connoisseurs are attracted to the limited amount of works in the repatriation phenomenon because they understand their scarcity; businessmen are lured in because they smell money to be made in the future. Using contemporary art marketing techniques, repatriated works for sale draw the attention of collectors and dealers. As Andy Warhol once said, “good business is the best art”: a motto that seems to be the market’s philosophy.
Considered the Mona Lisa of Austria, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer for his wife in 1907. This portrait represents a peak in the artist’s career know as his “Golden Phase” where his prominent use of gold leaf dominates the canvas. Moreover, his fascination with Byzantine mosaics and ancient Greek and Egyptian artistic techniques are evident in his eclectic style. When Adele died in 1925, she left both of her portraits (a second portrait by Klimt was painted in 1912) to her husband who was then forced to abandon his belongings and flee Vienna when the Germans invaded Austria in 1938. The paintings were confiscated by the Nazis and delivered to the Austrian National Museum in 1940 where they remained along with three other landscapes by Klimt that also belonged to the family. In 1999 Maria Altmann, Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece began a legal campaign to regain the five paintings back. Ultimately the courts ruled in her favor in January 2006.
That same year Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold to Ronald Lauder of the Neue Gallery in New York for $135 million dollars making it the most expensive painting sold privately at the time. The other four paintings were sold in the Christie’s May sales, selling far over their high estimates. Provenance was a key factor in the sales as it highlighted the social, historical and economical context in which the works of art were created and collected. Moreover, Picasso once said that the most important part of a painting is its myth. In the case of the golden portrait and the other four Klimts, their myth involving an affair between Adele and Klimt, the works’ disappearance during the Nazi plunder, the family’s escape from Austria, Ferdinand’s penniless death in exile and the ordeal to get the paintings back was the icing on their provenance. Works by Klimt done after 1900 that have been up for auction after 2006 have either sold for over their highest estimate or beyond it according to results on ArtNet. The market loves these rare paintings because they’re buying mystery, history, pain and a repatriated, avant-garde work that will always have leverage over the market.
When looted artworks resurface, you can be sure it will one hell of an auction season at the very least.