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Art ownership & national identity

Negotiations are currently underway in Austria for the re-purchase of two portraits by Klimt. The story has a long & complex history, but what is of more interest is the price that is likely to be paid for the paintings. The Austrian government is willing to pay a huge amount for these paintings, because they see them as a part of their national identity. This case of national identity being tied to cultural property is one of the key reasons why the Greeks have argued for so long that the Elgin Marbles should be returned & reunited in Athens.

Bloomberg News [1]

Klimt Ruling Raises Issues of Art Ownership, National Identity
(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)
By Martin Gayford
Jan. 30 (Bloomberg)

Austria may pay more than $100 million for two portraits by Gustav Klimt. Even in today’s market, that isn’t cheap and raises questions about the value of art and its relationship to national identity.

These aren’t just any pictures. One of them, in particular, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) has been described as the Austrian Mona Lisa and has, over the years, been reproduced on countless postcards and mousemats.

As a work of art, it is familiar but also quite odd. It’s a representation of the unhappily married wife of an unattractive sugar magnate, in a manner loaded with Celtic and Byzantine symbolism and psychosexual imagery. Many Austrians consider the picture crucial to their national identity.

This episode raises two interconnected issues. First, why do some images and buildings become inextricably linked to a country’s prestige? Second, who owns the world’s art anyway?

Those conundrums come together in the case of the Bloch- Bauer paintings, because they have been in the Austrian state collections for more than 60 years. Only now are the Austrians about to pay their owners. The affair is a long and tangled one.

The subject of the pictures — Adele Bloch-Bauer, who may have been the painter’s lover — intended to leave her art collection to Austria. When she died in 1925, her much older husband Ferdinand retained disposal of her possessions. When the Nazis took over in 1938, he fled the country as the family was Jewish, and the pictures were seized.

Vienna Ruling

And there the situation remained until an arbitration panel in Vienna ruled that Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, 89, is the true owner of the two portraits, plus three other Klimt landscapes. She has expressed a willingness to sell the two portraits to Austria, which must now come up with the cash.

The case isn’t unique. In recent years, very belatedly, there has been some redress for the heirs of collectors whose works were expropriated by the Nazis. They weren’t the only big losers.

Consider the fate of Sergei Shchukin, a Moscow textile merchant, and the world’s most assiduous patron of avant-garde art in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century. He amassed 13 Monets, 37 Matisses (the greatest array on earth), 16 Gauguins, 5 Degas, 16 Derains, 9 Marquets, a mere 4 Van Goghs, and 50 Picassos. The estimated market value of that lot — at a very rough guess indeed — is $3 billion.

State Power

All of Shchukin’s pictures were seized at the time of the Russian revolution. The official line is that this happened a long time ago, and nationalization, even without compensation, is irreversible. Shchukin’s descendants haven’t given up.

Occasionally, they fire off a writ when these works go traveling. Without them — and the collection of the Morozov family, also expropriated — the Hermitage and Pushkin museums would be enormously the poorer in modern art.

Nor does the question of who owns what stop at the misdeeds of the great dictators. The museums of Europe and America are filled with objects acquired by colonial powers with dubious legality, or none at all. Then there is the matter of all the works bought on the art market, which were originally stolen from archaeological sites. The list goes on and on.

The question of the return of art to its rightful owners is going to be a hot topic for decades. So, too, will be the matter of which works are so important that a country feels it simply has to hang on to them.

Vienna 1900

One can see why Klimt matters so much to Austria. He is –in a country richly endowed with composers — the leading representative of the visual arts. And “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” in particular, encapsulates everything summed up by the phrase Vienna 1900.

It’s much less clear how vital, say, the Parthenon Marbles are to Britain’s national sense of being. (Much less so, you’d imagine, than they are to the Greeks.) Should they go back?

For that matter, to choose a couple of random examples, should the gates of Babylon relocate from Berlin to a stable Iraq? Ought the Benin bronzes leave Bloomsbury and return to Nigeria?

These questions won’t go away. On the other hand, don’t expect any quick solutions. The Greeks first requested return of their marbles in 1829.

Last Updated: January 29, 2006 21:30 EST