'The Woman in Gold' is the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Klimt, 1907Wikicommons: Neue Galerie New York

Gustav Klimt eternalised his sitter in his elaborately embellished painting of 1907, the 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’. Adele gazes at us dreamily, as if nothing could interrupt her at this moment bliss amid a sea of gold. But in recent years, this painting came to be known for its turbulent history during WW2. The picture, also known as 'Woman in Gold', became the subject of a 2015 film telling its restitution journey. Restitution is the legal term for the return of Nazi-looted art to its owners or their family. The portrait, painted at the height of Klimt's golden phase, originally belonged to the Broch-Bauer family, but was seized by the Gestapo in 1938 after Germany annexed Austria.

“The field of Art Restitution generally concerns itself with artworks that were confiscated or seized from, forcibly sold by, or otherwise lost by the artworks’ previous owners”, according to this legal definition. “Generally, these owners had been subject to persecution or considerable duress.”

"Should every museum strip their walls and retribute works that do not belong to them?" 

Aldele Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, before Anschluss and her family's flee from the Nazis. Her niece, Maria Altmann, was heir to the Bloch-Bauer estate and collection. In 1998, allegations emerged that the Austrian National Gallery possessed looted art works. Altmann believed that under the post-war regulations, she was the rightly owner to her aunt's portrait. In 1999, Altmann sued the government in an Austrian court, but withdrew because of the enormous fee charged by the gallery to return all her family's paintings. Dropping the case in Austria, she brought her case to the US Supreme Court. Eventually, in 2004, the court ruled that the Austrian government would return the portrait.

Before this case, the Austrian government was primarily concerned with retaining its museum collection. Many Jews who wanted to leave Austria were required to 'donate' valuable artworks to Austrian public museum and in the name of preserving national heritage. It is clear that the National Gallery particularly wanted to keep the Klimt painting, having first exchanged the paintings with other artworks that Altmann claimed on in 1948, and five years later when Austrian had passed restitution laws.

In an interview with the NPR, Altmann claimed to have offered the Austrian government to keep the painting originally if they admitted it had been stolen, but received a stern refusal to acknowledge this history. I suppose the real discussion around the 'Woman in Gold' is the contention between so-called 'cultural heritage' and recognition of contested historical moments. On several occasions, the Austrian National Gallery had not realised the real significance of the portrait. The 'Woman in Gold' was indeed a national treasure, but not only because it depicts a beautiful lady radiating against the luxurious golden background. Educating the public on the history of this portrait, inspiring them to empathise with the victims, and warning future generations not to repeat this path are more advanced purposes of the modern museum.

When I was at a conference given by Richard Aronowitz-Mercer, European Head of Restitution at Sotheby's London, he began by explaining how objects such as silver spoons or jewel boxes were equally eligible for restitution. Objects that fall outside of the fine art category are as equally important to our understanding of looting and restitution. The emotional value they carry makes them no less significant than a high-profile Klimt painting.

"Art is not just another object in legal proceedings"

Just as the Nazis stripped Jewish properties of their riches, the East-German socialist state (the GDR) displaced much of the remaining cultural heritage to fund their regime. In 1961, the GDR confiscated $10 million worth of valuables under operation Aktion Licht. Stasi agents forced open abandoned, privately rented bank vaults at around 4,000 locations around the country. This kind of operation continued in the 1970s and 80s, when the GDR began to suffer from severe national debts, as its economy was generally performing badly. Western currency was desperately needed to pay these debts, so the government devised a combination of confiscation and selling of valuables, as well as blackmailing private owners to raise cash. The figures were equally staggering: between 1973 and 1989, more than 220,000 valuable objects were identified and seized from private citizens. These included fine art, china, coins, books, jewellery and tapestries which were stored in huge warehouses and then sold. More than 200 victims were blackmailed or arrested on false charges so that the state could seize their collections. The Lost Art Foundation was set up to find dispossessions from both the Nazi and Stasi era, but the odds were that the majority would not see daylight once they fell into private hands. As a Deutsch Welle report explains, collectors were "lucky" if their family heirlooms ended up in museums where they could be seen.

Restitution is far from a private-to-private business, often involving national institutions and international awareness. On one hand, the 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I' taught many about the hidden history of Europe's tainted art works. Nowadays, databases are created by legal and governmental bodies, such as Art Claim created by the Art Recovery Group, and many other initiatives in Germany and America. On the other hand, the ultimate issue is that almost no art works were untouched by oppressive governments in the 20th century. Should every museum strip their walls and retribute works that do not belong to them? Geographical boundaries and ruling governments alter, so who are the true owners of so-called national treasures? Although throughout the post-war era several major collections and institutions came under legal scrutiny, much is still to be done in this field. For instance, the return of the Jesus Cockerel to Benin came after serious debates about colonialism and looting. Art is not just another object in legal proceedings but, rather, a contentious issue about returned property, ethnical persecution, and national identity. One can only hope that when history is humbly presented, our understanding of art could pass beyond the matter of what's 'ours' and 'theirs'

Sponsored links