Christie's Auction Raises Ghosts: Painting Confiscated by the Nazis Sold for $38.1 Million

The Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting "Berlin Street Scene" was sold on Wednesday night for $38.1 million. So what? The painting raises a number of questions about the restitution of art confiscated by the Nazis.

When the final hammer fell, the art auction held by Christie's International on Wednesday evening in New York had easily set a record. Fully $491.5 million worth of impressionist and modern art changed hands, blowing away the previous high by $205 million.

The top price of the evening of $87.9 million was paid for Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Paul Gauguin's "Man With an Ax" going for $40.3 million.

But by far the most interesting sale of the evening was that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene," which went for $38.1 million. It was bought by New York's Neue Galerie, which is primarily financed by billionaire collector Ronald S. Lauder. The piece had only recently been returned to the granddaughter of a Jewish collector who had lost ownership of the painting as a result of World War II Nazi oppression. Lauder had played a crucial role in finding an agreement for the restitution of art confiscated by the Nazis.

The sale is sure to raise eyebrows in Germany, where a debate is ongoing about how to best handle such restitutions. Some are concerned that collectors like Lauder are interested in using restitution agreements to pry paintings out of German museums and onto the open market. The Wednesday night sale of the Kirchner painting, which had been returned to the heirs of the original owner by the Berliner Brücke Museum, will do little to dampen that suspicion.

Museums must prove that any paintings they acquired during the Nazi period were not bought under duress arising from Nazi persecution. For many museums, producing the appropriate documentation can be difficult. Wording of the agreement governing who can seek restitution has also caused some controversy. A new wording recently adopted means that even paintings sold by Jews in an effort to support themselves in Nazi Germany can be claimed.

cgh/bloomberg

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