Skip To Content

Shoah Suit Puts Scrutiny On Lauder’s Art Collection

When the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Viennese art collector who perished in the Dachau concentration camp, began trying to track down their ancestor’s collection of Egon Schiele paintings, they hit what they thought was a stroke of luck: At least two of the pieces seemed to have ended up in collections associated with cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, former treasurer of the World Jewish Congress and, most important, a major advocate of Holocaust-era art restitution.

Given that Lauder himself had argued vociferously for museums and private collectors to disclose the provenance, or ownership history, of any pieces thought to have been looted from Jewish homes during World War II, the family members assumed that they would easily get information about Lauder’s collection.

They assumed wrong.

Despite his high-profile advocacy for openness — including testimony before Congress in 1998 — Lauder has never publicly listed the works in his own collection, many of which are by painters who were popular with Jewish collectors before the Holocaust. And a museum that he founded has failed to fulfill its pledge to post provenance information for its collection.

When a lawyer for the Grünbaum heirs, Ray Dowd, wrote to Lauder’s attorneys, he was provided with details about only two paintings that Dowd already knew came from the Grünbaum collection.

“It’s fair to say that he has not lived up to his earlier commitments,” said Dowd, who represents a Grünbaum heir in New York and one in the Czech Republic.

The lack of information about Lauder’s private collection — few people know its size — is symptomatic of larger difficulties that have plagued Holocaust art restitution efforts since they began in the late 1990s. There have been some high-profile victories — such as the return, last month, of five valuable Gustav Klimt paintings to a California woman whose aunt had owned

them before the Holocaust — but such legal wins have been rare. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany estimates that while more than 50,000 art objects were stolen during the Nazi era, only a few hundred have been returned. Most of those cases involved German institutions.

“The whole issue of art restitution has fallen through the cracks,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who led the Clinton administration’s efforts to return property stolen from Jews during the Nazi era.

The larger philosophical and legal issues involved in returning items looted in war — particularly after 60 years have passed — have stirred continuing controversy. But the thorniest problem cited by many art restitution experts is the lack of publicly available information about artwork. Without information about where paintings are, heirs often cannot even begin the process of attempting to recover them. On the Web site of the Commission for Art Recovery, an organization that Lauder founded in 1997 as an offshoot of the World Jewish Congress, the cosmetics heir wrote that museums “must review their collections to identify and then publicize any art in their collections that may have been stolen.”

Given such statements, a number of art restitution experts said that Lauder’s reluctance to release information about his own collection has been “hypocritical,” in the words of one leading Holocaust researcher, Mark Mazurovsky.

“When the time comes for comments about restitution, he’s very eloquent,” said Ori Soltes, a lecturer in art history at Georgetown University and a founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. “But when the time comes for action that requires a more personal inward look, he seems considerably more reticent.”

Lauder’s anomalous position as both a collector and restitution advocate — he once told an interviewer he wore “two or three hats” — has attracted comment almost since restitution efforts began. One of the first cases to attract attention involved two Schieles that were seized in 1998 by New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, at the urging of restitution advocates, from a visiting exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which Lauder chaired at the time.

Lauder was already a prominent collector by the time he served as American ambassador to Austria in 1986. While in Austria, his purchases of Austrian art engendered controversy.

In addition to working with the Commission for Art Recovery, he is president of the Jewish National Fund, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a leading funder of Jewish education and culture in Eastern Europe.

A number of the current concerns about Lauder focus on the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, He co-founded that museum in 2001, in part to showcase pieces from his private collection. Right now the museum is hosting an exhibition of Schiele paintings, in which two works from Grünbaum are displayed. In documents released by the Neue Galerie, in response to a subpoena from Dowd, an Austrian researcher suggests that at least six other paintings in the museum’s collection have uncertain provenance.

The museum has not fulfilled a long-standing commitment to create an online database showing the history of the works in the museum. In 2003, Lauder told a British newspaper that the provenance information would be posted within a year, but more than two years later the museum’s Web page for provenance information is still blank.

Lauder declined requests for an interview, as did the curators at the Neue Galerie and the lawyers who represent Lauder, his foundation and his mother’s trust.

Lauder does have many supporters in the art world, including Jane Kallir, the art curator who put together the definitive catalog of Schiele’s works. Kallir told the Forward that Lauder has made his collection much more public than most private collectors by putting some of it in the Neue Galerie, where extensive catalogs accompany each exhibit.

But in Kallir’s catalog of Schiele’s works, those believed to be Lauder’s are listed as part of a “private collection,” and Lauder’s name does not appear once. This makes it almost impossible to know whether a painting is owned by Lauder or by some other private collector. Kallir said that private art collectors have a right to keep their holdings private.

“There are privacy and security issues,” Kallir said. The curator and co-director owns New York City’s Galerie St. Etienne, which has handled some of the Grünbaum collection in the past. “It’s a totally normal and not in the least bit suspicious thing to do.”

Schiele was a favorite among Jewish collectors in Austria before the Holocaust, after which the paintings ended up scattered throughout the world. Right now, in addition to an exhibition of Schiele works at Lauder’s Neue Galerie, there are Schiele exhibitions in Paris and in Vienna.

Each of these exhibits has at least one painting thought to have originally come from Grünbaum’s collection, which an Austrian researcher said was estimated to hold some 100 Schiele pieces. About half of these art works are now listed in catalogs as belonging to “private collections,” making it virtually impossible for an heir to know whom to contact about the works.

The rest of the works are listed in museum catalogs, but the response to the Grünbaum family’s requests for information about these paintings has varied widely.

Some entities — like the estate of Serge Sabarsky, who co-founded the Neue Galerie with Lauder — turned over full documentation about all their Schiele works to Grünbaum’s heirs. Other institutions, including the art museum at Harvard University, did not respond at all. In the middle are those like Lauder, who have turned over only select pieces of information.

The Grünbaum case has generated some controversy among restitution experts. The current claimants were discovered by an Austrian genealogist after an earlier claimant to the Grünbaum collection was judged not to be the rightful heir. There also has been debate over how the paintings ultimately reached a Swiss art dealer in 1956. But so far, the emphasis in the case has been on finding information about the works that made up the collection.

One of the first subpoenas in the case went to the Neue Galerie. The curator at the museum, Renee Price, wrote back to Dowd, the lawyer representing the Grünbaum heirs. Price said that the museum had no information to release. Only after Dowd pressed further did the museum’s lawyers acknowledge that they are currently displaying two works from the Grünbaum collection. Lauder’s lawyers did not provide information about Schiele paintings that Lauder has sold in the past.

Lauder told The New York Times in 2003 that the staff at the Neue Galerie was working hard to research the history of all the paintings in the collection, and later that year he told the Times of London that he hoped to post the provenance information for his collection on his museums’ Web site within a year. But that has not yet happened.

“Ronald Lauder hasn’t been very different than other collectors,” said Austrian art historian Tina Walzer, who first raised questions about the provenance of the Grünbaum collection.

Other restitution insiders disagree, arguing that Lauder has been more conscientious than most museum owners by including provenance information in the catalogs of the Neue Galerie. In the catalog for the current Schiele exhibition, one essay discusses the collectors of Schiele who died in the Holocaust, including Grünbaum.

According to attorney Randall Schoenberg, “He’s been very much on the up and up and very supportive.” Schoenberg is the lawyer for Maria Altmann, the woman who reclaimed the six Klimt paintings.

Lauder also has supported heirs making claims through the Commission for Art Recovery. The commission helped found an Internet portal to list potentially looted paintings (the Neue Galerie is not one of the 144 museums currently taking part). Still, it has been a subject of controversy.

The commission currently has a rudimentary Web site that describes the organization as an affiliate of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a coalition of international organizations. But the acting CEO of the WJRO, Michael Schneider, says that his organization no longer has any ties to the commission. In fact, Schneider said, when he first started at his current job two years ago, he wrote a letter to Lauder proposing that they revamp the commission. But Schneider told the Forward that Lauder never responded.

“It’s not clear to me what his organization’s intentions are, because we certainly are not receiving any reporting from them on that matter,” Schneider said.

When the commission was founded in 1997, it had much bigger goals. In testimony before Congress, Lauder described the new organization as a central address for art restitution. He hoped that it could establish a “master list of allegedly looted works of art.”

Despite such lofty goals, art restitution experts say, one of the main problems facing art restitution remains the lack of any central address for heirs seeking paintings.

Schneider said that after not hearing back from Lauder, he has pressed forward to establish a new central body with officials from the Claims Conference, the WJRO and the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. The leaders will meet for the first time in the coming weeks.

For a period last year, the commission’s Web site was down, but a spokesman for the commission said the organization is still functioning. The spokesman said the commission is currently representing 22 claimants around the world and that it co-sponsored a conference on art restitution in Moscow last November, all funded by Lauder.

On the Web site for the commission, a letter from Lauder says: “As you explore our website, you will learn what has been accomplished so far and the plans we have for making art restitution easier.”

Thus far, the Web site contains no information other than the letter and contact information for the commission.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.