VIENNA (Oct. 29)
AROUND THE JEWISH WORLD: Bids — as well as tears — flood auction of. looted Jewish history
Fran Laufer, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, had no intention of bidding on anything but felt the urgent need to be here, to be a part of history.
“I felt that I had to come. I just had to do it,” said the New York City resident.
Laufer was not alone.
Hundreds of people flooded to Vienna this week as some 8,000 artworks and other objects looted by the Nazis from Austrian Jews went on the auction block.
The unprecedented two-day sale raised millions of dollars to help Austrian Holocaust survivors.
Christie’s auction house, which on a non-profit basis carried out the sale of the so-called Mauerbach collection on behalf of the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities, had estimated that the auction would bring in about $3 million.
But proceeds had already topped $5 million after less than one-quarter of the lots had been sold, with some pieces going for more than 10 times the estimated selling price.
One oil painting, a still life of flowers by 17th-century artist Abraham Mignon, sold for more than $1 million. It had been expected to bring in less than $75,000.
So many bids came in that the auction process was slower than half its normal pace, prolonging the first day of sale late into the night.
Said a Christie’s spokesperson, “We had no idea that there would be so much interest.”
“The results have surpassed our expectations and those of Christie’s and other experts,” said Robert Liska, vice president of the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities.
He said that as soon as possible, an international committee would be formed to supervise the distribution and allocation of funds, and to determine who should be helped — and how.
“The proceeds for the sales by law will have to benefit needy victims of the Holocaust and their offspring, which entails on the one hand the care for the elderly and those who are not as fortunate as many others, but on the other hand to help build communities that have also suffered by the Holocaust,” he said.
Some 88 percent of proceeds will go to Jewish Holocaust victims, with other allocations slated for non-Jewish victims.
“The sale is intended to close this chapter with the grace and dignity that the victims deserve,” said Christie’s Chairman Lord Handlip before beginning the first international auction of “heirless” art.
Hundreds of buyers from around the world crowded into a hall at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in downtown Vienna to bid on what was described as “stolen art from stolen lives.” Other buyers called in their bids through a bank of international phone lines.
The old masters and 19th-century paintings and drawings, carpets, tapestries, furniture, porcelain, books, coins and other objects had been looted by the Nazis from Austrian Jewish homes between the German annexation of Austria in 1938 and the end of World War II.
Unclaimed after the war, and in most cases coming from homes and families that had been destroyed, the artwork was stored by the Austrian government for half a century in the 14th-century Mauerbach monastery near Vienna.
Only last year, after intense international pressure and detailed negotiations, was the ownership transferred to the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities, which decided to auction it off for the benefit of Austrian Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
The auction “is a symbol of the fact that truth [and] justice survives all other legal arrangements and survives time, and there is no way that anybody can think that these essential elements of daily life and history can be compromised,” Liska said.
The auction is thus seen as part of new efforts by the Austrian government to recognize the nation’s deep involvement in the Holocaust. This was made clear in a remarkable speech at a reception on the eve of the auction by Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky.
“We know that we Austrians were members of the SS, of the Sturmband, of the Wehrmacht, that we were Nazi Party members,” he said.
“We know their crimes were possible because we supported the system which made the Holocaust possible. I and many Austrians do not want to cover up and be silent.”
Emotions ran high both during the weeklong exhibition of the sale items before the auction and during the sale itself. The tragedy of the provenance of the artwork added extra significance to the individual items.
“Each one of these works of art represents a Jewish family who lost their possessions because they were Jews,” said Ronald Lauder, who co-chaired the International Honorary Committee for the sale along with Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress.
“Every on has a story to tell about the family it came from,” Lauder said.
In addition to items for his personal collection, Lauder said he had bid on carpets, furnishings and other items that he planned to donate to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, in order to set up a room that would recreate how a Viennese Jewish home before the war would have looked.
A number of Jewish organizations and individuals bid to buy works for Jewish museums and institutions or to consciously make them a memorial for Holocaust victims.
Joel Marmelstein, from upstate New York, said that after he read about the auction, he became determined to go and “pulled every string” so that he could bid for artworks on behalf of the Charles T. Sitrin Health Care Center and Home for the Elderly.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing, a very emotional experience,” he said. “It will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.”
He bought an oil painting that he said would be proudly displayed at the Sitrin Center.
Laufer, meanwhile, the survivor from New York City, had no regrets about coming.
“To be here and be part of this history,” she said. “My past is still with me – – even when I dance, and I love to dance, and even when I smile, and I love to smile.
“Look — I was so overwhelmed that this morning I put on two different colored boots!”