Nemo dat quod non habeat
You cannot give what you do not have.
My father began collecting Egon Schieles in the 1950s, his apartment filled to overflowing with near-pornographic images of cadaverous men and women, many with red hair like Ilona, my new stepmother, a childless, childlike woman as different from my accomplished, emancipated mother as rock from cheese. And because of Ilona’s cruelty to me — why couldn’t I dry a glass correctly, why couldn’t I speak German — and my father’s indifference, the more whimsical paintings in his collection became my friends and protectors. In particular, I was drawn to Emil Nolde’s flowers and Schiele’s landscapes. Since my parents’ divorce when I was a year old, I had slept on the couch during my court-ordered weekend visits under Schiele’s watercolor, “Farmhouse on the Hill.”
“Look how it sits there,” my father said. “Look at that line, the negative space.”
And it was true. “Farmhouse on the Hill” was magnificent and comforting, unlike Schiele’s nudes, which were disturbing, even terrifying for a child. “The farmhouse is my favorite,” I told my father.
“Then this one will be yours,” he said.
Sometimes on Saturday afternoons we went to galleries where he met his friends, the dealers Serge Sabarsky and Otto Kallir né Nirenstein. I listened to their conversations and drew in the sketchbook my father had bought for me. I loved coloring books but was not allowed to use them in my father’s presence; I had to draw freehand in my own book. And that sketchbook was stored beside his sketchbooks on the shelves under the window of his modest Upper West Side apartment. To be inspired to draw, I had only to look up at the paintings on the wall, or out the window at the sky and the sunrise and the occasional bird.
But he didn’t mean it — that the “Farmhouse on the Hill” would be mine — or if he did, he changed his will anyway. He had been terminally ill for a year and I hadn’t seen him for a while, a painful off-again, on-again estrangement that began after my daughter was born. I had written from London, where I was living at the time, to say I was pregnant; he was pleased and wanted me to contact him right away from the hospital. After we returned to New York, we met once and he fussed over his grandchild, Chloe, and showed her his cat and his art collection. And then my stepmother Ilona said, “No more grandchildren in this house,” or words to that effect. And my father acquiesced, unfortunately, for all of us. If we were to meet, it had to be without Chloe, he said.
Still, I was puzzled by the will, and hurt, and angry, and very sad. How had this happened? How could he have written these searing words: “For personal reasons, I make no provisions in this Last Will and Testament, for my daughter Carol Bergman, nor for my granddaughter, Chloe Bergman.”
There was so much about my father that I had admired and wanted to love, so much of him I had wanted to share with his granddaughter. I had never had grandparents and I wanted her to have grandparents. It was one reason we had returned to the United States. And it was one way to put the Holocaust losses to rest, I had thought.
I watched helplessly as my father’s art collection passed to my stepmother and then, after she died, into her estate. “Farmhouse on a Hill,” the painting my father had promised to me, sold at Christie’s London in 2006 for $964,258, and the proceeds went to the Ilona Gerstel Estate for distribution to various Jewish Holocaust charities.
I don’t know much about my father’s childhood, but whatever is relevant to this story, whatever I do remember or have discovered, I will record here. He grew up in Neunkirchen, Austria, a town on the Hungarian border. His family owned a sawmill that was confiscated by the German Nazis as they advanced into Austria in March 1938. Thirty-odd years before that cataclysmic event, life for the young Fritz Gerstel (spelled Gerstl then) consisted of school, soccer, religious education and work at the family’s mill. There were four athletic brothers to help out — Paul, Ernst, Alfred, my father — and a sister, Herta, who was more than likely restricted to the domestic sphere with her devout, austere mother. I have one photograph of this maternal grandparent of mine, foreboding and joyless, a stout white-haired woman bent over a sewing machine, and another of her father, my great-grandfather Kohn, wearing an embroidered square skull cap.
When my father moved to Vienna to study medicine he quickly shed his provincial upbringing. He was a flâneur, roaming the city — its art galleries, bookstores, cafés and cabarets, including Fritz Grünbaum’s Simpl Cabaret, more of him later. Vienna in the 1920s had a socialist government and a cosmopolitan, free-thinking intelligentsia. And my father had become one of them. He was arrogant, handsome, flirtatious. He loved nurses in particular, and red-haired nurses best of all, if he could find them. Winter holidays were spent in the Alps skiing; the most difficult slopes were his favorite. In the summer, he rock climbed.
He became an ophthalmologist and a surgeon well known for his dexterous hands and innovative techniques. My mother had been warned that he was a lady’s man — and that he liked nurses in particular — but she was a medical intern, soon to become an obstetrician-gynecologist. It was a more prestigious calling than nursing for a woman, and my father was impressed if not smitten. My mother, however, was smitten. She had watched him operate and admired his skill as a surgeon; his reputation was well earned. And he could draw. His muses: Gustav Klimt and Klimt’s Viennese protegé, Egon Schiele. He didn’t have enough money to buy art in those days, but he would stand in front of the drawings, oils and watercolors, and sketch. In this way, he was able to possess them.
My mother had her own artistic talents: petit point, collage and photography. Born and raised in Vienna in a sprawling, secular, free-thinking Jewish-Catholic family, she looked down upon provincials, Eastern European Jews, Orthodox Jews and the nouveau riche. Rising stars from the provinces like my father were usually not of interest to her. But he was charismatic.
It was probably my sharp-tongued, intelligent, irreverent, cosmopolitan mother who deepened my father’s artistic inclinations. Vienna was a treasure trove of galleries and museums. Weekly visits were both a pleasure and a necessity to keep up with the cultured crowd.
Otto Kallir opened the original Neue Galerie in Vienna in 1923, two years before the publication of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” In 1928, on the 10th anniversary of Egon Schiele’s death during the influenza epidemic, Kallir mounted a retrospective of his work at the gallery. Most of the work on show that year was borrowed from Fritz Grünbaum’s collection. He was a well-known cabaret entertainer and the owner of more than 400 works of art, including 81 by Egon Schiele.
It’s within the realm of possibility that my then-20-year-old medical student father went to this exhibition, that he met Kallir at the exhibition, and that he sketched some of the work. By the time he met my mother a few years later, Schiele, more than any woman, perhaps, had become his passion.
As for the collector Fritz Grünbaum, that bold, funny, talented man, would eventually be arrested as an enemy of the Third Reich. He continued performing in Dachau, raising everyone’s spirits with jokes about conditions in the camp. He died there in 1941.
His wife, Elizabeth, had endured visits from Hitler’s minions before she was imprisoned. Their precious art collection was assessed, listed and impounded, to raise cash for the war machine, or for the museum Hitler was planning to build in Linz, Austria, or for his personal collection of art and artifacts.
The Grünbaums weren’t alone, of course. The coffers of all Jews had to be emptied before they were granted exit visas, incarcerated, sent to work camps, or killed.
My parents had escaped and so had Otto Kallir and his wife Fanny. Both couples were in Paris for a year — my parents working for the Red Cross, Kallir at his own art gallery, the first Galerie St. Etienne — until they embarked for America. Theirs was a long, sad departure from Europe without their parents or extended families, a vast ocean separating them from what might have been a happy future in the Vienna of their youth.
October 2014. I opened the newspaper and there was Schiele’s “Stadt am blauen Fluss (Krumau),” or, “The City on the Blue River.” This was the gorgeous landscape my father had purchased in 1965. It was similar to “Farmhouse on the Hill,” the watercolor I had cherished as a child, but more lush and developed.
My father had become one of a handful of American collectors: Leonard and Ronald Lauder, Serge Sabarsky, Otto Kallir, and a few others. For all of them, I believe, the investment was aesthetic and emotional as well as financial. The value of the works they collected had increased exponentially since the 1950s, and were worth millions. So had my father’s lust for the work, his addiction to it. He talked about his collection all the time: what he had bought, what he had sold, what he had heard was suddenly available. The origins of the work — what in the art business is known as provenance — was never discussed.
Klimt’s oeuvre and some of the other works they collected had become iconic in endless reproduction. And the artists of the Vienna Secession, like the impressionists, were crowd pleasers in museums and galleries. But this 2014 sale at Christie’s was unique, as noted by their website: “‘Stadt am blauen Fluss’ is being offered for sale pursuant to successful resolution of a restitution settlement agreement between the consignor and the Grünbaum Heirs, which allows for clear title to the work.”
Court cases concerning the restitution of artworks to the heirs of murdered Jewish collectors have become more frequent since the 1998 Schiele retrospective at MoMA, when New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau seized Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally,” and “Dead City III,” preventing their return to Vienna. “Portrait of Wally” was tied up in litigation for years until July 2010, when the Leopold Museum in Vienna agreed to pay $19 million to the heirs of the Bondi family. “Dead City III,” which was looted from Fritz Grünbaum by Nazi authorities, was returned to Austria, where it is currently at the Leopold Museum, subject to the claims of the Grünbaum heirs.
I had never heard of Fritz Grünbaum or read much about Jewish Holocaust provenance cases; I never understood that these great works my father owned might have been stolen by the Nazis, smuggled out of Austria, sold on the black market in Switzerland — Swiss dealers were well known for laundering Nazi loot — and then re-sold with questionable provenances in the galleries in New York and other cities.
My mother had gone to high school in Vienna with Sabarsky and bought and sold from his gallery. She preferred Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Die Brücke to the artists of the Vienna Secession. As far as I know, she never asked about the provenance of the work she bought from Sabarsky.
But what about my father, what about him? Jews buying art confiscated by the Nazis, oblivious to the rights of the owners’ heirs, remnants of massacred families like our own? Was my father oblivious? Did he know that he might be collecting stolen art?
He is not here to ask so I really don’t know. But I do remember my father telling me that he had fallen in love with the works of Egon Schiele at Kallir’s Neue Galerie in Vienna.
“Stadt am blauen Fluss (Krumau), City on the Blue River” sold at Christie’s New York for $2.9 million on November 5, 2014 to an anonymous telephone bidder. Afterward, I went to visit Jane Kallir, who has run the Galerie St. Etienne on 57th Street since her grandfather’s death in 1978.
I had been to the gallery in June 2013 to sell a Heckel woodcut of a dead soldier that my mother had given me as a birthday present some years ago. The image was disturbing and I no longer wanted it on my wall. Ms. Kallir took it on consignment, for which I was grateful. She had it repaired and sent it to tour in an exhibition commemorating the anniversary of World War I.
With such strong family connections, and Sabarsky dead, the Galerie St. Etienne was an obvious choice for me to sell the Heckel. But when I returned on November 11, 2014 to talk to Jane Kallir after the Christie’s sale of “City on the Blue River,” I was troubled and had many questions. How many other Schiele works in my father’s collection might be looted art?
I listened for nearly an hour as Jane Kallir told her story about the provenance of “City on the Blue River,” which differed in almost every detail from the stories I had heard and read thus far, including court documents that established the Rief family as legitimate Grünbaum heirs. Oddly, Jane Kallir didn’t accept that “City on the Blue River” had been impounded by the Nazis; according to her, it did not need to be restituted. Rather, she said, it had been rescued and then preserved in Brussels by a Grünbaum in-law and then sold legitimately after the war to a Swiss dealer named Kornberg. There were bills of sale and signatures to prove this.
I was shocked that Jane Kallir believed this dubious provenance story. In a 2005 article on the Galerie St. Etienne’s website, Jane Kallir wrote, “All these Schieles, brought to the United States by Jewish emigrés, were free of Nazi taint, but [Otto] Kallir was acutely aware that many, many other artworks had been stolen during the Hitler years. With his knowledge of prewar collections, his ties to the refugee community and his professional contacts in Vienna, he found himself in a unique position to help people who had lost art during the Holocaust.”
Kallir adds, “In his own art dealings, he [Otto Kallir] did everything possible to avoid handling works that might have been stolen, although of course he was not omniscient (and often complete provenance information was unavailable).”
In the case of “City on the Blue River,” however, there is a lot of provenance information available and it is clear to me — and many others — that the painting was never my father’s to own, never his to give to me, or to withhold from me in his will. And even if he had been an innocent buyer , at least by American law, he would still be required to give up the painting. As would I, if I had inherited the painting. Its restitution, resolved without litigation, is a memorial to all our relatives — Grünbaum and Gerstel — murdered in the Nazi genocide.
Carol Bergman is a freelance writer in New York City. She is the author of the memoir, “Searching for Fritzi,” two books of novellas, and the novel, “What Returns to Us.”
This story "Egon Schiele, My Father and Me" was written by Carol Bergman.