Holocaust Survivor Demands Klimt Painting From Lauder

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 26, 2007, issue of September 28, 2007.

The heirs to Estee Lauder have reveled in the publicity brought by their ownership of a number of prominent Gustav Klimt paintings, but it is safe to say that the attention they are receiving now is entirely unwanted.

A Montreal man, George Jorisch, is claiming that Leonard Lauder, the former CEO of Estee Lauder, holds a Klimt painting that was stolen from Jorisch’s grandmother during the Holocaust. Lauder’s lawyer has so far rebuffed the claim.

Jorisch’s request that Lauder return “Blossoming Meadow” comes barely a year after Lauder’s younger brother, Ronald, helped a California woman recover a separate group of Klimt paintings that were stolen during the Holocaust. Ronald Lauder eventually bought the painting for a reported $135 million.

Indeed, Ronald Lauder has been a leader in advocating for the return of art stolen during the Holocaust, helping to create the Commission for Art Recovery and even appearing on the floor of Congress in 1998 on its behalf. This past advocacy makes his brother’s stance in the current case particularly surprising, according to the lawyer for Jorisch.

“Now this is Leonard, not Ronald — and I don’t know what his position is,” said Jorisch’s attorney, Randol Schoenberg. “But we need to find out.”

Schoenberg’s own role in this case itself carries historical irony: He was also the lawyer for the woman who recovered the Klimt paintings that were sold to Lauder, and he worked closely with Lauder in that case.

Leonard Lauder’s lawyer, Andrew Frackman, said that he has been in touch with Schoenberg for the last five years and has received no clear indication that the painting did in fact belong to Jorisch’s grandmother.

Lauder is the chairman of the Whitney Museum of Art’s board of trustees. His brother, Ronald, founded the Neue Galerie, which will open an exhibition of Klimts on October 18. The painting now under dispute will not be in the upcoming exhibit.

The ownership history of “Blossoming Meadow,” which Klimt finished in 1906, has long been a matter of contention. A catalogue of Klimt’s work from the 1950s said that the painting had been owned before the war by Amalie Redlich, Jorisch’s grandmother.

In 1960, a new catalogue was written and it removed the mention of Redlich as the owner of the painting before the war. Lauder’s lawyer contends that the Klimt painting that was owned by Jorisch’s grandmother is another one that now hangs in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.

For the last five years, Jorisch’s lawyer, Schoenberg, has been researching the history of the painting and claims to have found documents suggesting that Jorisch’s grandmother was removed from the list of owners erroneously. That contention is supported by a new catalogue of Klimt’s work published in Austria last week. The new catalogue states that the painting was indeed owned by Jorisch’s grandmother, who was deported from Vienna to the Lodz ghetto in 1941. Jorisch himself survived the war in hiding in Belgium, with his father.

Schoenberg says it was the new catalogue that cemented his decision to go ahead with the claim. He is preparing a legal demand and if the demand is not met he plans to then file a lawsuit — though he says he hopes Lauder will relent before then.

This is not the first time the Lauders have come under fire for their work on paintings with questionable Holocaust-era provenance. While Ronald Lauder has led the public campaign to return Nazi-looted art, he has been criticized by some art historians for not being entirely forthcoming about the provenance of his own collection of Austrian and German art. Most of the works he owns are listed in catalogues as residing in a “private collection,” which makes it difficult for potential claimants to track the painting down.

With “Blossoming Meadow,” Jorisch’s lawyer, Schoenberg, says that at first he was not able to track down the painting because it was only listed as part of a private collection. Schoenberg says he only discovered that Lauder was the owner thanks to an insurance application by a Canadian museum.

“Otherwise I never would have found it — no one would tell me where it was,” Schoenberg said.

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