Whose painting is this? Tracking the ancestry of art
In the world of film, questions of provenance are having a moment in both documentaries and fiction. In the 2015 film, “Woman in Gold,” Helen Mirren plays an octogenarian who finds proof that a famous painting by Gustav Klimt was the one that hung above her aunt and uncle’s fireplace when she was a child. The painting, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”—her aunt’s name—had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
If you follow the art world, you know this story is not unusual. The growth of internet research and increased interest in proper due diligence—particularly for Nazi-looted art and other spoils of war and archeological exploration (remember Indiana Jones?) —has made it easier to trace the provenance of artworks and antiquities.
No one knows this better than Eden Burgess, a partner at Washington D.C.-based law, policy, and strategic advising firm Cultural Heritage Partners. The firm specializes in art and antiquities law, historic preservation law, Native American issues, and governmental affairs. The firm was started in 2010 to fill a market gap in this space of increasing attention and complexity.
Eden tells a story of a client whose claim bore a striking similarity to that of Mirren’s character in “Woman in Gold.”
That client’s name was Eric Weinmann. One day, when Mr. Weinmann’s friend was visiting the Yale University Art Gallery, he spotted a painting that had belonged to Mr. Weinmann’s mother. The painting, “Le Grand Pont” by Gustave Courbet, had been taken from the family during World War II. It ended up in the hands of Herbert Schaefer, a German lawyer who had been a Nazi “brown shirt.” Many years later, Schaefer loaned it, along with much of the rest of his art collection, to Yale.
The answer isn’t always what you’d think
It was a complex case—one that didn’t only raise questions of legal title, but also involved an emotional connection to the artwork and (as a Nazi-looted art claim) carried questions of social justice. In these situations, Eden and her team understand that the desired outcome for each party can be situational and personal. “Instead of how to slice the pie,” she explains, “we like to think about how to make the pie bigger.”
It’s an approach that can lead to creative solutions.
Knowing the painting was rightfully his, but also that he didn’t have the resources to keep the high-value piece at home, or to insure it for its full value, Mr. Weinmann, with the help of Eden and her colleagues, brokered a settlement to maintain a life estate in the painting, then transfer title to Yale after his death.
“It was a positive outcome, though not the kind of outcome you usually see in movies,” Eden explains. “The museum has a plaque next to the painting recounting its history to help educate visitors on the terrible history of Nazi looting in World War II—to help ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Eden says that many people don’t realize just how many ways there are to address issues with ownership. “For many people, a claim to title is a matter of seeing justice served, of being recognized and respected,” she said, “If you’re creative about it, the resolution can end up being educational and beneficial for all the parties involved.”
Often, ownership by a museum is an attractive solution, because it offers both a safe place for the work of art and the opportunity for many people to appreciate and learn from it. As Cultural Heritage Partners says on its website, “In the right hands, the law is not restraint but opportunity.”
Advice for art collectors: be the first to know
But what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if you inherited a valuable painting or pre-Columbian object with little or no paper trail? Would you want to find out whether its ownership was legitimate—or clouded?
It’s a question that many collectors grapple with—and one where Burgess believes ignorance isn’t bliss.
“People are often reluctant to find out more about the pieces they own—especially those acquired through inheritance,” says Burgess. “Looking into the provenance of a piece left to you by a loved one can be emotional, so people have all kinds of reasons to put off doing so.
“But you should find out, because if you know, you can’t be surprised. In today’s world, an issue is likely to come out, so if you’re the owner, it’s best to be the first to know.” Early diligence, Eden explains, can empower collectors with options, save expense and stress, and add significantly to the value of a collection.
For collectors concerned about the associated time and expense, it helps to remember that the benefit can far outweigh the cost. “In our experience,” Eden explains, “It’s still cheaper and more efficient to be proactive than to deal with a surprise claim.”
In some cases, being proactive can even pay off. “If you are a collector who not only buys but also sells artwork, a clean, detailed provenance can really add to the value of your artwork,” Eden notes.
As Eden sees it, there are many ways to address a potential issue—so finding one is only the beginning of the conversation, not the end. “If you have all the information in front of you, rather than being cast as someone who’s caught in the act, you are in a position to consider all the options in front of you. Often, we can figure out a compromise solution,” she explains. “Not every claim ends in a piece a collector loves being forfeited—that’s only one possible resolution of many.”
Specialists like Eden can be invaluable in advising clients and insurance providers on how to reduce their risks in the area of provenance. And while her firm often advises insurers and insureds during claims on policies, her stories and advice drive home that having the right knowledge to call on before claim time can prove equally important.
Insurance plays an important role and a provider that specializes in insuring art and collectibles can also be invaluable. In addition to valuation, a specialist insurer understands complex art issues such as rightful ownership, and can provide coverage that responds in these situations.
Berkley One has a group focused on collections, including art and antiquities, and offers innovative protection such as Fine Art Rightful Ownership Expense coverage, which can provide coverage for certain expenses to research, investigate, establish and defend rightful ownership, and to defend such claims.
Just as importantly, Berkley One’s art advisory team can help you figure out the right questions to ask—and connect you to resources, like Eden, to help solve them.
Eden Burgess is a Partner at Cultural Heritage Partners.
Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC, is the world’s only law and policy firm dedicated exclusively to cultural heritage clients. It specializes in art and antiquities, and historic preservation. To learn more about Cultural Heritage partners, visit their website.
To find out more about insuring your collection with Berkley One, a Berkley Company, speak with your agent, or reach out to find an agent.