LONDON (Jul. 11)
An art collection owned by the Austrian branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty has been auctioned in London for $90 million.
The 218-piece collection — looted by the Nazis in 1938 and returned to the family by the Austrian government only last February — included 31 Old Masters, furniture, glass, porcelain, arms, armor and Renaissance musical instruments.
Prior to the July 8 bidding at Christie’s auction house, the collection had been expected to yield some $40 million.
The highlight of the sale was an illuminated prayer book containing 67 full- page miniatures that was produced in Belgium in 1505.
The book, which fetched a record $13.6 million and had been expected to sell for $5 million, is now the most expensive illuminated manuscript ever sold.
Among other major items in the sale were a portrait by Frans Hals, which sold for $13.2 million, the highest sum ever paid for a work by the artist; a Louis XVI commode, which fetched $11.2 million; a Louis XVI clock, which yielded $3 million; and a French holster pistol, which was made in 1620 and is regarded as one of the finest of its kind, fetched $250,000.
The items were stolen by the Nazi SS from the homes of Baron Louis Von Rothschild and his brother, Baron Alphonse Von Rothschild, within 48 hours of Germany’s anschluss, or union, with Austria in 1938.
They were intended for a Hitler Museum the Nazis had planned in the Austrian city of Linz.
U.S. servicemen discovered the collection in an underground salt mine at a Tyrolean ski resort after World War II and returned the works to Vienna.
While not disputing the Rothschilds’ ownership of the works, the Austrian government immediately passed a law prohibiting their sale abroad or export.
None of the descendants was living in Austria, so the government ordered the collection broken up and individual items distributed among various state galleries, museums and other institutions.
The prohibition against exporting the collection was dropped last February in response to an international campaign spearheaded by Jewish groups tackling the issue of Nazi-looted art.
The Rothschild descendants, now living in the United States, were reported to be unaware of the inheritance until the Austrian government announced that all Jewish-owned art looted by the Nazis would be returned.
A spokeswoman for Christie’s said the heirs of the Rothschilds no longer had the many grand houses their families once owned.
“They have nowhere to put the collection, which is one of the reasons why they are selling.”
In its heyday during the mid- 19th century, the Rothschild family owned 75 houses in which they exhibited their collection.
The Rothschilds were part of the Austrian court’s circle during the 18th century, and after the French Revolution the various branches of the family – - which had settled in Paris, London, Vienna and Germany — merged as owners of the biggest European banks.
By 1830 the family name was synonymous with great wealth and artistic treasures.
When Baron Nathaniel died childless in 1905, the collection passed to his brother, Albert, who bequeathed it to his sons, Louis and Alphonse.
Alphonse Von Rothschild escaped one week before the anschluss. When the Nazis arrived to arrest Louis, he sent a message saying he was having dinner and suggesting they make an appointment. They agreed and returned to arrest him at the pre-arranged time.
While he was in prison, his valet was allowed to decorate the cell with tapestries and regularly delivered fresh orchids.
In addition to the bidders who packed the London auction room — representing museums, public institutions, private companies and the individuals themselves — Christie’s installed 70 lines for telephone bidders, 60 more than it normally installs for major sales.
A spokesperson for Christie’s said the sale was one of the most important in its 243-year history.
Following the four-hour event, Christie’s chairman Lord Hindlip described the auction as “thrilling.”