Monthly Archives: February 2014

New Nazi-looted Klimt Claim

A huge row brewing in Vienna over a Gustav Klimt masterpiece has been largely overlooked by the press, which remains preoccupied with Cornelius Gurlitt’s secret stashes of over 1500 allegedly Nazi-looted artworks in Munich and Salzburg. The other story concerns Klimt’s monumental, 7×111 foot Beethoven Frieze, an elaborate gilded Jugendstil fantasy celebrating the composer’s Ninth Symphony. Klimt painted it in 1902 for the historic opening of Vienna’s new gallery devoted to the breakaway Seccession Movement, founded by Klimt with other radical artists.The famous landmark is also known as the “cabbage” building because of the elaborate curlicued golden decoration on its roof. Intended only for temporary exhibition, the frieze remained on the walls throughout a major 1903 retrospective exhibition of Klimt’s work. That same year it was bought by an important Viennese collector, Carl Reininghaus, who had the frieze removed from the walls in eight separate sections which he then left in storage for a dozen years in a furniture depository. In 1915, Reininghaus sold the work to August Lederer, one of Klimt’s foremost supporters and patrons. But, with the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, Lederer was forced to escape to Switzerland, leaving behind his home and art collection which was appropriated by the Nazis.

After the end of the war, some of the Lederer family’s looted art works were returned to August Lederer’s son Erich, but, like many Jewish families whose possessions were plundered by the Germans, the family had to fight long and hard to for permission to take these back to the countries where they had fled at outbreak of war. Usually, this resulted in further victimisation of these dispossessed families, who, after protracted haggling, were coerced into signing special “deals” to regain some of their belongings. Because of Austria’s strict laws at the time, prohibiting the export of works of historic and cultural value, the Lederers were forced to donate, or to sell at knockdown prices, their most valuable paintings to the Austrian state, in return for being allowed to take other works to Switzerland. This was nothing less than extortion by the Austrian authorities. Although Erich Lederer waited for many years to be allowed to take his beloved Beethoven Frieze home to Switzerland, in 1973 he capitulated to Austria’s demands, and sold the iconic work to the state at a cut price rate of $750.000. At the time, this was acknowledged to be less than half the value of the work, estimated by Christie’s at $2 million. The frieze, by then badly damaged, was restored and eventually installed in a specially designed room at the Sccession Museum. There, just as Klimt’s iconic “The Kiss” in another Viennese gallery, this masterwork continues to attract visitors and art lovers from around the world.

That might have been the end of the matter until, last September, heirs of the Lederer family dropped a bombshell by filing a legal claim for the return of the work.The demand is by far the most high profile case to emerge since a new restitution law was passed in Austria in 2009. This allows Nazi-looted art, as well as art previously sold by former owners under duress or at a great discount because of the country’s export ban, to be returned to the claimants. According to legal experts, the Beethoven Frieze is a textbook case for this new restitution law. Under the terms of the 2009 law, all Austria’s museums and public collections must allow investigations into the origins and provenance of all their artworks for evidence of forced sales and disposal of other people’s property on a nod and a wink by dealers who were Nazi sympathisers and collaborators. A special Restitution Commission, responsible for supervising these probes, meets five or six times a year and publishes its recommendations online. The commission will now look into the Lederer family’s claim and then submit its findings to a restitution advisory panel in Vienna, who are likely to decide on the case later this year. The panel will then make a recommendation to Austria’s culture minister, who is responsible for the final decision.

In the meantime, The Seccession Museum, which houses the masterpiece, is defending itself against the claim, arguing there is written evidence that Erich Lederer sold the Beethoven Frieze to the Austrian state in an amicable transaction, claiming that he sold the frieze for a price “voluntarily negotiated by him and considered by him to be reasonable.” Lawyers for Lederer’s Swiss heirs emphasise that correspondence owned by the museum and now cited as evidence for an amicable negotiation proves nothing, and that such arguments are self-serving and “truly cynical”. But, as the art world eagerly awaits the verdict in this wrangle, another burning question remains: Christie’s valued the Beethoven Frieze at $2 million in 1973. Given the record breaking multiple millions that Gustav Klimt’s paintings now command on the open market, what is its estimated 2014 value ? The fight has only begun, and the sums involved remain anyone’s guess.

In Germany, where so far no such restitution law exists, heritage experts and art dealers are watching this case with keen interest. The German authorities have come under fire for their indifference towards last November’s disclosure, by a popular magazine, of 81 year-old Cornelius Gurlitt’s secret cache of over 1500 art works in a Munich flat. Many hundreds of the works are suspected of being Nazi-looted treasures. Until now, no complete list of the hidden canvases, which customs officials have kept under lock and key for two years, has been released. In response to outrage from Jewish organisations as well as the governments of Israel, the UK and the USA, the new culture minister Monika Grutters, recently proposed the establishment of an independent centralised body to deal with restitution and provenance issues. And last week, the German government announced it was considering a law, proposed by the justice minister, permitting families to recover works of art stolen from them during the war or else acquired from them under duress. The main feature of the new law would be the removal of the 30 year statute of limitations, which has prevented anyone claiming their possessions since 1975. Given that most of the original owners of Nazi-looted art works were either murdered in German death camps or have died of old age, it all seems too little, too grudging, too late. Had the scandal of Cornelius Gurlitt’s secret treasure trove not focused international attention on Germany’s shameful indifference to matters of restitution, would the government ever have decided to do the right thing ?

Hounding Amanda Knox’s supporters

I’m sure I cannot be the only person to notice one of the more disturbing aspects of the Meredith Kercher murder case. That is, how many observers around the world, most of them wholly unconnected with these events, have joined forces to vilify Amanda Knox, her alleged killer, as a ruthless, degenerate liar undeserving of sympathy or understanding.  Equally chilling is the Knox haters’ readiness to excoriate anyone who doubts or questions Knox’s role in Kercher’s murder. Those attacks, naturally enough, have been carried out anonymously, almost wholly online, through social media. It is clear when you read several long established blogs, forums and twitter feeds dedicated to the memory of Meredith Kercher, that anyone outside the anti-Knox camp, is regarded as an enemy of truth and justice and ipso facto also condemned to eternal hell and damnation.  Anyone who rightly claims that Knox’s and Sollecito’s role in the murder has so far not been proven without reasonable doubt, has been come in for often vicious abuse and charged with belonging to a conspiracy to cover up the truth of Knox’s guilt.

One such alleged “conspirator” , the American crime author Douglas Preston,  is a prime example of character assassination by the world’s Knox-haters. Preston’s treachery, according to his enemies, is to have given an interview to the website of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in which he said he thought Amanda Knox was innocent. His other crime was to have written a true account of his own investigations with a fellow Italian journalist, Mario Spezi, into a series of grisly murders allegedly committed by the so-called “Monster of Florence” during the 1970s and 1980s. The identity of the monster has never been proven. The reason for the Knox-haters’ attacks on Preston and Spezi, both of whom I have interviewed in the past, long before the Kercher murder, is that both men became involved with the Chief Prosecutor of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini, who eventually headed the investigation into Kercher’s murder. In previous years, Mignini had been involved in probing the Monster of Florence murders: in their book, The Monster of Florence, both authors cast doubt on the soundness of Mignini’s investigation, especially his theory that the killings were part of  Satanic rituals carried out by high-ranking members of a local  cult. Mignini ordered the arrest of Preston and Spezi and both men were charged with attempting to derail his investigation. Preston was arrested in Florence and hauled up for interrogation by Mignini. Although charged with various offences, he avoided imprisonment and returned to the US. Spezi wasn’t so lucky. After lengthy interrogation, he was imprisoned in Perugia’s grim Capanne jail for over three weeks before Mignini bowed to worldwide public pressure and released him, but not before he was charged with numbers of crimes including the allegation that he was the Monster of Florence. While Spezi was soon cleared of all charges, ironically, Mignini was himself subsequently charged and convicted of abusing his judicial powers. None of this has prevented Knox haters from praising Mignini’s investigation into Kercher’s murder or continuing to accuse Spezi and Preston and anyone connected with them, of being criminals.

If nothing else, Preston’s and Spezi’s run in with Mignini and the later investigation of Meredith Kercher’s murder illustrate three  important aspects of Italian culture and its  justice system. First is the extent to which superstition, primitive belief in the powers of good and evil and the presence of occult  forces still lingers in parts of Italy, including the areas around Florence and Perugia. Another cultural quirk is the enduring and widespread Latin view of all women as either madonnas or whores – the latter being the category to which Amanda Knox was immediately consigned by many Italians, including Giuliano Mignini.  As in the Monster case, he railed against the forces of darkness and claimed Meredith Kercher was a victim of a drug-fuelled, sado-masochistic sex ritual that went wrong.

The third disturbing feature to emerge from the Monster of Florence case and that of Kercher’s murder is the degree to which police procedure in Italy – and also to some extent in France, Spain, Greece, Portugal – is often fatally flawed from the very outset of a criminal investigation. Common slip ups include contamination or loss of vital evidence, slow and sloppy police procedure, failure to promptly and fully seal off the crime scene and flawed forensic work. Given the questionable validity of scientific evidence  presented by the prosecution in some murder cases, it would be astonishing if this did not result in unsafe convictions.

In fact, many believe Kercher’s killer is already behind bars. Rudy Guede, originally from the Ivory Coast, was soon discovered to have been at the scene of Kercher’s murder.  Guede went on the run immediately after her body was discovered.Eventually arrested in Germany, he was brought to trial and convicted of the murder on the basis of DNA evidence, including semen traces, linking him to the murder scene. Although Guede confessed having been present, his claim – supported by thousands of Knox-haters – that he did not act alone and that he was joined by Knox and Sollecito in the attack on Kercher, remains unproven. Several footprints and DNA traces remain unidentified: might it not be that others did join Guede during his murderous binge, but that they remain as yet unidentified ?

The Trials of Amanda Knox

The news last Thursday 30th January, that an appeals court in Florence reinstated the original guilty verdict of Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, for the murder of English student Meredith Kercher, has made world headlines. After the couple were tried and convicted in 2009, that verdict was reversed by Italy’s Court of Cassation – second only to the Supreme Court -  in March 2013 on the basis of errors and faulty logic. In fact, many non-Italian journalists and commentators wrongly referred to this latest process as the couple’s second “trial” when in fact it was, as Knox’s lawyer pointed out: a “continuing case on appeals”.

The mistake is understandable given the complex, drawn out nature of Italy’s justice system. Although Knox’s and Sollecito’s last appeal did result in an acquittal, that ruling was thrown out by Italy’s Supreme Court due to “deficiencies, contradictions and illogical” conclusions and  the case was sent back to the appellate level. Since, under Italian law no verdict is  final until the Supreme Court affirms a judgement, last week’s newly upheld guilty verdict must also again go before the Supreme Court which will eventually uphold or overthrow it. That ruling will almost certainly not happen until next year. And, if the Supreme Court does uphold the verdict of the appellate court, there will almost certainly be a move to extradite Knox, who has stated she will never willingly return to Italy. The case therefore could drag on for many years, if not decades.

This is a deplorable scandal for many reasons. Not least, the lack of hard evidence of the couple’s guilt. The recent hearing included some much-vaunted ” further evidence” brought by the prosecution. This consisted principally of a second forensic analysis of DNA traces, already previously tested, on a knife, alleged to be the murder weapon. That analysis, as in the first forensic report, proved inconclusive. Not that this will cut any ice with seasoned followers of the saga. Irrespective of the eventual Supreme Court ruling , many will claim that justice was not done: whether Knox and Sollecito are found to be innocent or guilty will not satisfy the two main groups of observers who have followed the case since 2007. A final guilty verdict will lead many to declare a grave error of justice, since no hard forensic evidence, or eyewitness testimony links Knox and Sollecito to the murder scene – the house shared by Kercher and Knox which necessarily bears traces of both women’s DNA. If the couple’s guilty verdict is overturned, a howl of fury will erupt from the alarmingly vociferous army of self-confessed “Amanda Knox haters”, who have repeatedly, publicly and furiously vilified the American woman on Twitter and Facebook, believing her to be the devil incarnate, a drug and sex-obsessed degenerate who can only be  guilty of Kercher’s murder. This is therefore a case in which there are no winners, only losers.