Nick Cohen reviews two films about five paintings by Gustav Klimt (including the famed Woman in Gold) that were stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family, held by the Austrian government for decades after the war, and returned to Maria Altmann, the daughter of the original owners, after a protracted legal battle—and he asks an important question:
[N]either film asks a question that goes to the root of our experience of art: why should we care? The fate of the Klimts makes my point. After her family’s paintings were restored, Maria Altmann sold Woman in Gold for $135 million to Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York. It is on public display, as it was in Vienna, and no harm has been done. But anonymous private buyers bought the three Klimt landscapes and the [other] portrait. . . .
A painting hidden from public view is like a banned book: it might as well not exist. Justice for the rightful owners of a great work is all very well, but the rest of us might worry more about keeping it on public display. . . . The answer lies in our yearning for authenticity. . . . [M]ost people want to know that murderers did not steal the picture in front of them. The Nazis understood this. As with the gas chambers, they knew they could not admit to their crimes. . . .
When I visited the Belvedere in the 1990s, all five Klimts were on public view, compared with just two today. Their display was not the blessing it seemed because the gallery could not tell the truth — be authentic, if you like —without changing the way most visitors would have looked at them. Honesty would have required them to say: “This picture was taken at gunpoint. We have never compensated its rightful owners or secured their consent to hang it here.” . . .
If I—and I hope you—had read that, we would not have seen a work of luscious beauty in front of us but a crime scene, and demanded that the courts intervene.