Art for sale? The Altmann Case and the Restitution of Looted Art
The bombastic nature of events in 2020 meant that many issues were under-reported. One such issue was the relaxation of rules relating to the sale of paintings and other art objects by museums and art galleries in the US. Such sales are controversial for many reasons, not least of which is the provenance of many of these items. This is especially so for art looted by the Nazis prior to their defeat in 1945. This article will analyse the impact of the Altmann case, one of the first successful cases of restitution of Nazi-looted art and will discuss its impact on art galleries and museums.
During WW2, a lot of important art and cultural objects were looted and confiscated by the Nazis. These were then handed over to museums around Germany and Austria, which created a significant and long-standing legal and financial issue. This was the case since museums came into possession of expensive paintings and artefacts, knowing of the fact that they were illegally obtained from Jewish families.
Maria Altmann resided in Austria and belonged to a wealthy Jewish family. Following the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1936, her uncle fled the country and his estate and property were subsequently confiscated. In his will, he left all of his wealth to his niece Maria Altmann. Her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, died in 1945. Following the end of the Second World War, her uncle was deemed by the Austrian Supreme court as the lawful owner of six Klimt paintings, the estimated worth of which was around $135 million in 2000. However, the paintings were held at different museums and galleries across Austria.
Following Austria’s introduction of the 1946 Annulment Act and the 1998 Restitution Act, Maria Altmann initiated proceedings to gain possession of her uncle’s paintings. Her request was denied by the Austrian Restitution Committee in 1999 based on the fact that her uncle had expressed a wish during his lifetime for the paintings to be donated to the Austrian museum. The committee’s decision was controversial, as it was obvious that the committee’s reasoning was problematic and went against Ferdinand’s written will.
In 2000, Maria Altmann subsequently filed a lawsuit at the United States District Court for the Central District of California against the Republic of Austria claiming that the country had breached international law by expropriating her lawful property. Mrs Altmann relied on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to bring her claim against Austria’s government in the US, a statute that allows litigation to be initiated in the US against foreign states.
Austria claimed that the Act could not be applied in this case as it was enacted in 1976, while the property was confiscated in the early 1940s. In 2004, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Republic of Austria was not immune from such a lawsuit and denied Austria’s motion for dismissal since it was ruled that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act could be applied retrospectively for events that occurred prior to its enactment.
In 2005, Mrs Altmann reached an agreement with Austria to abandon the litigation process and instead resort to a binding arbitration. The Austrian arbitration panel reached its decision in 2006 and ruled that Austria had to return the six paintings to Mrs Altmann. The paintings were later sold at an auction by Mrs Altmann, by which time their value had risen well above $150 million. This was the most valuable return of Nazi-looted art in Austria, and indeed one of the paintings even fetched the highest price for auctioned paintings at the time it was sold.
Impact on Galleries and Museums
The case indicates that museums, galleries, and institutions which possess cultural objects illegally obtained should be wary of the way they deal with them. The previous owners of such objects may bring legal proceedings against these institutions to claim restitution of their property. The lawful owners of cultural objects can still reclaim them regardless of the fact that the objects in question were confiscated decades ago.
Consequently, institutions with objects of questionable origins in their collections should be aware of the fact that these objects may be subject to restitution and that any attempt to sell the objects in their possession will result in controversy. The reaction to the attempts of the Baltimore Museum of Art to sell some of its holdings in October 2020 should serve as a warning for any museum contemplating doing the same.
The US regulatory body for museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, does not usually allow its members to sell art objects, unless the funds from such sales are used to finance the purchases of other art objects. Even then, the purchase of new art objects in this way must be justified to the Board, such as by arguing that the purchase is necessary to increase the diversity of the objects in a museum’s care. This is because museums are not meant to be profit-driven and their purposes are purely educational and cultural.
However, when most museums started struggling during the pandemic, the usually strict Association decided to relax its rules on the sale of art objects. Lockdowns and social distancing have restricted the ability of museums to get enough visitors to sustain themselves. The sudden and significant decrease in their ticket proceeds has meant that most museums are struggling to cover their operating costs and whilst government funds were distributed to them, these are often not enough. As a consequence, the Association decided to allow its members to sell some of their art objects to cover the museums’ operating expenses.
The Baltimore Museum of Arts, one of the most significant museums of art in the US with a huge collection of around 95,000 art objects, decided to make use the Association’s decision to sell some of its holdings. Various paintings were selected in the Museum’s bid to raise more than $65 million. Yet the Museum’s efforts were scuppered, as both the media and the general population viewed this decision as harmful to the public.
Selling these objects would remove them from the public eye and would also go against the wishes of those donating them to the museum in the first place. For art objects that were illegally obtained, such a course of action would be even more contentious, as it would mean that museums would make a profit out of the illegal activities of others. None of the paintings selected to be sold by the Baltimore Museum of Art were alleged to be looted art, yet the public outcry against the otherwise legitimate sale forced the museum to call off the auction it had set up, as it sought to avoid the damage to its public image that the sale would have produced.
Maria Altmann’s case created a precedent for the future of restitution of Nazi-looted objects. Galleries, museums, and other public institutions must keep this into consideration when making any decisions about their holdings and should be aware of their potential legal obligation to return them to their rightful owners. Looking forward, any plans to sell art objects should be reassessed in light of the controversy which surrounded the Baltimore Museum of Art. This is especially so when one remembers that the Museum's proposed sale did not even include objects of questionable origin, yet it was still cancelled due to the reaction of the public, illustrating that sales by museums are never simple.