Linda told you that there would be guest contributors to this blog, and I’m honored to be the first. Let me introduce myself to you–Simon Rieger-as I did for the first time to Lily Kovner on that fateful afternoon at the Judaica auction when her family’s Seder plate showed up on the block.

Like everyone else at the auction, I was shocked by her outburst.  These auctions are sedate and refined.  Maybe not so fancy and formal as Sotheby’s or Christie’s–but low-key and dignified.  What shocked me most was how disgracefully everyone treated her, the people in the audience and the ones running the auction.  Sure, she interrupted the proceedings, but her charge was serious, at least serious enough for the Mosaica woman to withdraw the Seder plate and end the auction.  I couldn’t believe that no one talked to Lily or bothered to even ask about what she said; they just got up and left.  Totally shunned her on the way out. Without a glance her way.  Close to one hundred people.

I couldn’t let it go.  Or let her go.

I worked among looted art, as a private assigned to the Monuments Men, during my Army service right after World War II.  I knew there could be a scintilla of truth in what Lily said.  And I’m a Judaica collector–old manuscripts and books; do you think that between my Army experience and my years in the marketplace I’d never run into issues of questionable (a euphemism) provenance?  The aftermath of the Nazi years opened a Pandora’s box of art provenance problems. The work of the Monuments Men who sorted and tried to return art to its rightful pre-war owners could only go so far.   Let’s face it: a lot of those owners were in no position to claim their lost property.  Some of the art simply went back to countries of origin, including the U.S.S.R. and its affiliates, which plopped the Iron Curtain over it until recently. Plenty slipped through the cracks of pilfering or more outright crime.

And, I have to admit that it wasn’t just the collector in me who stopped to talk to Lily.  Here was a very attractive woman with a problem. Jumping up and screaming foul at the auction might not have been her finest moment, but my gut told me she wasn’t a nut case.  Of course, my approach–the clapping and show stopping remark–was far from my smoothest come-on, given the circumstances.  But when I backed off and apologized, she seemed receptive and forgiving.

I hope so.

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