With a $180 million Picasso, art market enters a new frontier


When Picasso's “Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)” set a record on Monday as the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, it was by a wide margin of nearly $40 million, fetching just under $180 million.

Christie's' sale of 35 works spanning the 20th and nascent 21st centuries also became the first auction at which two works each topped $140 million, when Giacometti's “Pointing Man” bronze sold for a record $141.3 million.

While Christie's did not identify any buyers of the top 10 lots, even by region, officials said a bevy of new collectors had entered the market in just the last five years or so – and at the very top echelons.

“We have entered a new era of the art market,” said Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie's global president, after Monday's sale.

“Collectors from all parts of the world compete for the very best across categories, generating record prices at levels we have never seen before.”

The Picasso surpassed the $142.4 million paid for Francis Bacon's “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in November.

Pylkkanen said bidders at the highest levels, including Christie's' top nine lots which each fetched some $25 million or far more, have probably only been in the market for five or six years.

“That is going to continue,” he added.

Asian buyers have been spending heavily at New York's spring sales, with at least some winning bids for Christie's' top works taken via telephone by executives from its Asian operations.

Since a hiccup following the 2008 financial crisis, the art market at its top levels has enjoyed an unprecedented boom, driven by super-rich collectors flush with cash.

European, Middle Eastern, Russian, American and Asian buyers are competing for a limited supply of masterworks.

Christie's had five collectors vying for the Picasso at the $120 million level, which is virtually unprecedented. Such spending compels collectors to sell masterpieces.

New collectors are also crossing categories, unlike others who focus on Impressionism versus contemporary art.

“Collectors from different countries are appreciating masters from Picasso to Rothko,” said Pylkkanen. “Whether it's furniture or porcelain or artists who represent the best in 20th-century painting, they appreciate the best in class.”

Such appreciation means records will continue to tumble. Speculating on the lifeline for the new mark set by the Picasso, Pylkkanen said, “It could be a decade, it could be longer.”

If recent history is any guide, it could be far less.

Jewish leader warns Swiss museum against accepting German art hoard


The head of the World Jewish Congress warned a Swiss art museum that it risks an “avalanche” of lawsuits if it accepts the bequest of a collection of artwork amassed by a man who dealt in art for the Nazis.

The Bern Art Museum discovered in May it had been named sole heir of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a man who dealt in so-called “degenerate” art for Adolf Hitler. The Bern museum has yet to decide whether to accept the artwork.

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said that since Gurlitt's father, Hildebrand, had collected art stolen by the Nazis from Jewish collectors or taken from German state museums, Bern would have a problem on its hands if it accepted the works before their provenance has been fully investigated.

“If this museum in Switzerland gets involved with this inheritance, it will open Pandora's box and unleash an avalanche of lawsuits – possibly from German museums, but certainly from the descendants of the Jewish owners,” Lauder said.

“The people in Bern will harm themselves and their country if they take these paintings before their provenance is cleared up. They would become a museum of stolen art,” he told German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview to be published on Sunday.

Gurlitt died in May at the age of 81, in the flat in Munich where he lived and stored the art collection. The Bern museum said news of his bequest came “like a bolt from the blue,” because it had not had any connection with him.

Hundreds of masterpieces by the likes of Chagall and Picasso were secretly stored by Gurlitt at the Munich apartment and a house in nearby Salzburg, Austria. He occasionally sold pieces to finance his quiet lifestyle and his healthcare. The collection is worth an estimated 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion).

The Gurlitt family had said its collection was destroyed in the bombing of their home in Dresden during World War Two. Its survival remained secret until 2012, when tax inspectors stumbled across the hoard during an unrelated inquiry.

The Bern museum denied a German media report last month that it had decided to accept the artworks. It said it was still in talks with German authorities to ascertain all the implications of accepting the inheritance.

“In the end our board of trustees is free to decide whether it is in the best interests of the Bern Art Museum to accept or decline the estate,” it said in a statement in mid-October.

Website with sample of Nazi-looted art is overwhelmed


A website showing a small sample from a trove of Nazi-looted art found in a Munich apartment was flooded with hits.

Out of a total of more than 1,400 works, an initial list of 25 with photos went online Monday.

“There were so many hits that the site was overwhelmed,” a staff member of the German Federal Coordination Center for Lost Art, based in Magdeburg, told JTA. She said works would be added to the list gradually.

German authorities bowed to international pressure by publishing a partial list of the works. The list may help those who are trying to reunite the long-lost art with their rightful heirs.

The find — including works by Chagall, Picasso, Matisse and Beckmann — was publicized by the Munich-based Focus magazine earlier this month.

Inquiries from potential heirs or their representatives should be sent to the office of the State Prosecutor in Augsburg at poststelle@sta-a.bayern.de.

Germany also is assembling a task force of experts to speed up provenance research. Heading the team will be German attorney Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, former assistant secretary to the federal commissioner for culture and media.

Customs investigators seized the paintings, sketches and sculptures, dating from the 16th century to the modern period, last year but stayed silent until now because they had chanced upon the art during a tax evasion probe, which compels secrecy.

The secrecy and the failure so far to publish a complete list of the works has attracted criticism from those who argue that publicizing such finds is crucial to establishing their ownership and returning them to their rightful owners.

A statement on the Lost Art website explained that about 970 of the works found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt — son of the Nazi-era collector Hildebrand Gurlitt — may fall into the category of art deemed by the Nazis to be “degenerate,” or works stolen during the Nazi era. Of these, 380 have been identified as works that the Nazis confiscated during their “Action Against Degenerate Art” campaign in 1937.

Researchers are investigating the background of the remaining works, the center said in its statement.

Nazi-looted trove contains lost works by Matisse, Dix


Previously unknown paintings by Henri Matisse and Otto Dix are among a vast trove of Nazi-looted art found in a Munich apartment that includes works by some of Europe's most celebrated artists, German experts said on Tuesday.

Customs investigators seized the 1,400 art works, dating from the 16th century to the modern period and by artists such as Canaletto, Courbet, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, last year, an official said.

They had remained silent until now not because of any “improper intentions”, they added, but because they had chanced upon the art during a tax evasion probe, which compels secrecy.

While experts consider the works to be of huge artistic value, the task of returning them to their rightful owners could take many years and poses a huge legal and moral problem for German authorities.

The haul, found in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a war-time art dealer, is one of the most significant discoveries of works seized by the Nazi regime. It could be worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), according to a German magazine, although officials declined to comment.

Gurlitt, who occasionally sold paintings to support himself, has since vanished.

The paintings, which were found in generally good condition, are being stored in an undisclosed location and no list will be published – something that has been criticised by those seeking to recover lost art. The decision may be intended to deter false claims that would distract expert investigations.

“When you stand in front of works that were long considered lost, missing or destroyed, and you see them again, in a relatively good condition – a little bit dirty but not damaged – it's an incredible feeling of happiness,” said Meike Hoffmann, an art expert from Berlin's Free University who has been assessing the find.

Hoffmann said that among the previously unknown paintings was a self-portrait by Dix, in impeccable condition, and probably painted around 1919.

A similarly unknown Matisse painting, of a seated female figure that he had painted several times, probably dated from the mid 1920s and was confiscated in 1942. There was also a work by Marc Chagall not previously known.

Slides of the works were shown during a news conference, including the Matisse and a group of horses by German expressionist Franz Marc.

SYSTEMATIC PLUNDER

The Nazis systematically plundered hundreds of thousands of art works from museums and individuals across Europe. Thousands of works are still missing.

Investigators made the spectacular find after Gurlitt, believed to be in his seventies, aroused their suspicions as he travelled by train between Zurich and Munich, with a large sum of cash, according to German media.

Jewish groups have urged that the origins of the art works be researched as quickly as possible, so that, if looted or extorted, they can be returned to their original owners.

For some families missing art constitutes the last personal effects of relatives murdered during the Holocaust.

“Had this discovery been made public at the time it was made, families looking for their lost art would have been able to potentially identify works within this collection,” said Julius Berman, Chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

“Publicizing the existence of Nazi-looted art is essential to the process of finding heirs,” he added.

The group cited an agreement struck in Washington in 1998, where 44 governments endorsed a set of principles for dealing with Nazi-looted art, including that every effort should be made to publicise it.

Besides paintings the haul included a large number of drawings and pastels on paper.

“We were able to confiscate 121 framed art works and 1,285 non-framed works, including some famous masterpieces,” Nemetz said. “We had concrete clues that we were dealing with so-called 'degenerate art', or so-called looted art.”

NAZIS' DEALER

Cornelius's father Hildebrand Gurlitt was, from 1920, a specialist collector of the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded as un-German or “degenerate” and removed from show in state museums, or displayed simply to be mocked.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited Gurlitt to sell the “degenerate art” abroad to try to earn cash for the state. Gurlitt bought some for himself and also independently bought art from desperate Jewish dealers forced to sell.

Investigators said the collection comprises works which are clearly from the Nazi regime's state-owned collection of “degenerate art”. Others, which may have had several owners or may have been extorted from owners fearing Nazi persecution, will need extensive research.

Jonathan Petropoulos, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and author of “The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany”, said: “Hildebrand Gurlitt became a dealer for Hitler and went to the Nazi art-looting headquarters in Paris where he presumably got a lot of works.”

Gurlitt, who fled to the West after the war, claimed he had lost all his art and papers in the bombing of Dresden. “Obviously that was a lie,” Petropoulos added.

Germany has faced criticism that the restitution process is too complicated and lacks sufficient funding.

Restitution groups and lawyers have often criticised state and museum authorities for not doing enough to research works' origins themselves and instead leaving the onus on relatives.

Daddy’s Been Arrested


The final inch of the story turned me into an emotional puddle.

At 6 a.m. last Friday, the F.B.I. arrested Michael S. Steinberg, a 41-year-old stock trader for New York hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors, at his $8 million Manhattan co-op. 

This brings to nine the number of SAC employees indicted in the investigation of its founder, Steven A. Cohen, whose net worth is around $10 billion.  Four of them have pleaded guilty.  Apparently the F.B.I. is trying to reel in and flip Cohen’s conspirators in an alleged insider-trading scheme, and Steinberg – Cohen’s golden boy – is their latest catch.

The New York Times has been all over the SAC investigation, running front-page stories about how Cohen, even as the F.B.I. is now tightening its lasso on him, has gone on a shopping spree, buying a “>paying $155 million to casino magnate Steve Wynn for “Le Rêve,” the Picasso that Wynn had accidentally put his elbow through in 2006.  (Since Wynn reportedly had paid less than half of that to acquire the painting in 2001, Cohen seems to have gotten no discount for wear and tear.)

“>Natan, which “inspires young philanthropists to become actively engaged in Jewish giving by funding innovative projects that are shaping the Jewish future.” 

But to the F.B.I., Michael Steinberg was a high-level player in an insider-trading ring that illegally profited from secret financial data about technology stocks Dell and Nvidia.

Steinberg knew they were closing in on him.  Here’s the kicker to the Times story:

“Since his name surfaced in the investigation, Mr. Steinberg has occasionally spent evenings in New York hotels to avoid being handcuffed at home in front of his two children.  Federal agents refused to let Mr. Steinberg surrender of his own volition at F.B.I. headquarters downtown, expressing the view that white-collar defendants should not be given special treatment.”

Last week, Steinberg and his wife and kids had been visiting relatives and taken a trip to Disney World.  On Thursday, he returned to his Upper East Side place without them.  At dawn on Friday, the Feds came for him with the cuffs.

I can’t get those kids out of my mind.  They did nothing wrong, and they were spared what could have been a traumatizing moment.  But I can’t help thinking about what it was like learn the news from their mother on Friday.  It’s almost unbearably poignant to imagine their family life last week, during the final days of what they will inevitably think of as Before: the kids having innocent fun on the rides, oblivious of what’s to come, as their parents struggle to join the laughter and savor the last moments before After starts shadowing them forevermore.

Deterrence is one of our criminal justice system’s goals.  If Michael Steinberg pleads guilty or is convicted, his future punishment will also punish his family.  And yes, he should have thought about that ahead of time, while rising at SAC and accumulating the rich life’s rewards.  A front page “>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society and the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Israel Museum puts rare artworks up for sale


The Israel Museum is selling 38 rare pieces of art estimated to be worth $17 million.

The money earned from the auctions will go to update the Jerusalem museum’s collection, the Israeli business daily Globes reported.

The works going up for auction by Sotheby’s beginning next month include paintings by Magritte, Pissarro, Picasso and Chagall.

The museum decided to sell off some of its artwork due to a reduction in donations and a need to purchase newly recognized important works of art, according to Globes.

There are 500,000 objects and works of art in the Israel Museum’s collection.

Picasso painting goes on display in Ramallah


A Palestinian art academy has put a $7 million Picasso painting on display.

The painting, Pablo Picasso’s “Buste de femme,” painted in 1943, is on loan from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. It went on display in Ramallah Monday as part of the “Picasso in Palestine” exhibit.

It is said to be the most prestigious work ever exhibited in the West Bank, and is the Dutch museum’s most valuable work.

The loan took two years to arrange, though these transactions typically take about six months, according to reports.

The painting was flown from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv and then escorted to Ramallah by an Israeli security company, the Associated Press reported.