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Monday, October 15, 2012

Mahler's Autographed Photograph to his Disciple, Arnold Schoenberg, a Perspective on the Mystery

The 1907 Moriz Nahr autographed presentation photograph of Gustav Mahler inscribed to Arnold Schoenberg

Gustav Mahler at the end of his Vienna tenure sat for a series of photographs in his office at the Hofoper. The series taken by the Austrian photographer Moriz Nähr in 1907, are among the most iconic photographs of the composer. To my knowledge there are 8 poses, several seated, several standing at various angles and were released during Mahler's lifetime. These photographs which were a favorite of the composer, but quite expensive at the time, were dedicated to only his closest circle and are rarely offered on the open market, either by auction, or by dealer.  His widow Alma, was famously shown holding a large version of the photograph in a photograph of her taken in her later years. 

The mentor-disciple relationship Mahler had with Arnold Schoenberg was an important and interesting one. They first met in 1904, though Schoenberg had known Alma Mahler since 1900. The meeting was precipitated with his founding of the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler, or the Society of Creative Composers with his brother-in-law and teacher Alexander Zemlinsky. Mahler was made first honorary President of the Society. While Mahler did not fully understand all of Schoenberg's music, he saw the merit of his musical oeuvre and championed the younger composer. From the other perspective, Schoenberg had a difficult professional relationship at times with Mahler, who was slow to accept his ideas and genius.  However he always respected and venerated the composer, who was a great influence on him. A year before Mahler's untimely death and on the occasion of Mahler's fiftieth birthday, Schoenberg made an appeal to him, 

  Your fiftieth birthday affords an occasion for me to tell you what I always want to keep on saying: in what high regard I hold you. and how I cannot help remembering, with much distress that in earlier days I so annoyed you by being at variance with you. I feel I was wrong to try to thrust my opinions on you instead of listening when you talked and letting myself be enriched by what is more important than opinions: the resonance of a great personality. 

He signs the letter, With affectionate veneration and devotion. 

Which brings us to the drama surrounding the missing, now found Mahler photograph. A well written article by Dan Wakin of the New York Times discusses the basic situation surrounding the lost, then found photograph and some of the intrigue which has unnecessarily followed. 


A little background I have discovered since making contact with the Schoenberg Family. Mr. Cliff Fraser appears to have located the photograph while rummaging through his nonagenarian Grandmother's basement. He claims to have found the photograph behind a boiler and further claims it was so dirty he almost threw it out. He apparently cleaned the item and then contacted the Schoenberg Center in Vienna, where the archivist, knowing the history around the photograph and about the empty frames they currently hold contacted the Schoenberg Family. Mr. Fraser maintains his Grandfather, Abraham Fraser, a pianist in the Los Angeles area was given the photograph by his teacher, Josef Schmidt, who was a pupil of Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg.  Berg died in 1935, when the photograph was well in the composer's possession. While several of Schmidt's students claim he was a pupil of Schoenberg, it is not the truth. According to the Schoenberg family, who have examined all the evidence at their disposal, Schmidt was one of the many Jewish emigre musicians who were known to Schoenberg and occasionally visited his Los Angeles home.   A dialogue began with the Schoenberg's and Mr. Fraser.  Mr. Fraser looking for a big payday demanded they pay $350,000 to return the piece. They attempted to meet with him and he did not keep the appointment;then he then cut off communication with the family. At this point, Mr. Fraser decided to sell the piece on the open market offering it to dealers and auction houses. I come into the story a couple of months later as an interested party and attempted to make contact with Mr. Fraser.  I had read about the item on Randol Schoenberg's blog and had further conversations with one of my colleagues whom Mr. Fraser had contacted.  The entire situation was quite intriguing and so as a known dealer in the marketplace, I made contact.

Dear Sir: 
I was told that you have a group of autographs in the classical music field that you wish to sell. I would be interested in hearing about what you might have to offer.
Sincerely yours,

To which Mr. Fraser responded, 

How exactly did you hear of me and who gave you my contact information? 

Now I have been at this game a long time and have dealt with items at every end of the price spectrum and had never received a response like that.  So I responded as follows,

From another dealer whom you contacted who was not interested in whatever you offered to them, but thought I might have an interest. We buy and sell classical music autographs, manuscripts, scores, letters and ephemera. I am a long standing dealer in the field and a member of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association.
Anyhow, happy to discuss anything you might have to offer. If you no longer have any items, sorry to trouble you.

To which he replied,

I have an autographed and inscribed photograph of Gustav Mahler, dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg. The document's description is as follows: The photograph is a gelatin silver print, measuring approximately 6 inches by 6 ½ inches, mounted on strong cardboard, measuring 8 ½ inches by 10 ¾ inches. The photograph is set off-centered, leaving an uncovered space measuring 2 ½ inches, between the bottom edge of the photograph and the bottom edge of the cardboard. Furthermore, in this aforementioned space there is a penned inscription.
The print is a portrayal of Gustav Mahler in the foyer of the Vienna Court Opera, commissioned in 1907. The artist was Moritz Nahr, and the print bears his stamp which is imprinted in the bottom right-hand corner. The stamp reads, “M Nahr Wien 07”. In the print, Gustav Mahler sits in a chair, left leg crossing over right, arms resting at his sides, right had clutching the chair, left hand forming a fist, head turned to the left. Mahler is wearing glasses, collared shirt, bow-tie, button-up vest, single-breasted jacket, and pants; his feet are not visible. The inscription, which is written in the uncovered space on the cardboard mount below the photograph, is penned in black ink. The inscription reads as follows: “Arnold Schoenberg”, followed by hand written music, “zum abschied, Wien 1907, Gustav Mahler”.
This was a gift from Gustav Mahler to Arnold Schoenberg, saying farewell before leaving Austria for New York on December 9, 1907. Mahler was a broken man at the time following a series of tragic events: On June 11, 1907 after years of satiric criticism, Mahler quits the Austrian Phil Harmonic, a position he renounced his Jewish faith to acquire; OnJuly 12, 1907 his daughter Maria, age 4, dies from scarlet fever in addition to being diagnosed with a bilateral valvular defect. Mahler, fearing his own death lay on the horizon, says goodbye to his dearest friend with a message only they could understand.The Third Symphony was an inspiration to Arnold Schoenberg which he expressed in a letter he wrote to Mahler after hearing it preformed in December 1904:
My Dear Director, I must not speak as a musician to a musician, if I am to give any idea of the incredible impression your symphony made on me. I can only speak as one human being to another, for I saw your very soul naked, stark naked. It was revealed to me as a stretch of wild and secret country. I felt it as an event of nature. I felt your symphony. I shared in the battling for illusion. I suffered the pangs of disillusionment. I saw the forces of evil and good wrestling with each other. I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony... Forgive me, I cannot feel by halves.”
Arnold Schoenberg Sunday, December 12, 1904
Schoenberg too was criticized for his composition, which inspired Mahler to become the biggest supporter and public advocate for Schoenberg.“I do not understand his music, but he is young; perhaps he is right. I am old, perhaps I no longer have the ear for his music.” Gustav Mahler 1907
Gustav Mahler died on May 18, 1911. According to his wife Alma, his last words were“who is going to take care of Arnold?”
Considering Sotheby's recent sale of Mahler's last symphony manuscript for approximately $600,000.00, I value the photograph at least $500,000.00, however, I am negotiable.
Best Regardes, 

Now, the reply above was in a patchwork of fonts.  Also the response as you can see is not written by someone who recently found an item in an area he knew nothing about.  The language is quite interesting, as it is not autograph dealer speak, but antiquarian book seller colloquialisms.  Further, the writing even there is inconsistent and appears to be cobbled together from several people's writing. The email was accompanied by the photograph you see above and several grainy close-ups of the autograph, attached, please see one of the additional images below.

Grainy close-up of the Mahler dedication to Schoenberg

Looking at this situation from my position as a Music Antiquarian, this photograph would normally be something worthy of acquiring.  I could even think of several logical buyers, but there is history on the sale of this image signed and unsigned in the marketplace and the price he was asking was absurd and had no basis in reality.  His basis of comparison, the manuscript for Mahler's 10th Symphony versus an autographed photograph dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg was ludicrous at best and not a basis of comparison whatsoever. An unsigned original standing version of the photograph was sold Villa Grisebach Auktionen in Berlin at a photography auction in 2002 for $7700 U.S. One was offered on E-Bay in 2006 of the same image, also unsigned and brought slightly more than $2000 U.S. I have had the photograph myself signed and inscribed without bars of music and sold it for $15,000. A colleague of mine offered an autographed example with bars of music in his Christmas catalog four years ago and asked $25,000. The fact that the item is signed to Schoenberg would surely drive up the  value, perhaps double, even as much as $65,000 on a really good day at auction, but no where near where this fellow was asking. 

So in an attempt to see where this might go, also attempting to discover the provenance, I replied,

Thanks for telling me about this piece. There is a huge difference between a manuscript and a signed photograph. You are talking about a Rolls Royce vs. a lower end BMW in a price comparison. Price wise, even with an amazing dedication like this, it still is only worth a fraction of an important manuscript of one of the composer's most important works. I have sold this same image signed to a musician within the last 5 years and the retail price was $15,000.00. I have also appraised at least two others in the same period with similar dedications one to a friend, the other a musician and arrived at the same price. That price actually jibes with the entire dealer community. Now obviously, a photograph signed to Schoenberg would command a higher retail, but the question is how much higher. In my mind, at auction the piece would not reach more than $50-$65,000 on a good day, which means I would have to be at close to half of whatever price we agreed upon.
Where in the World did you wind up with this amazing piece? Also, I heard you had other items which may be of interest.
Anyhow, is there a way to get a clearer scan of the photograph?
Please advise, 

The reply came as follows,

Thank you for your professional opinion. However, after speaking with my attorney, I can not continue this discussion unless you identify the individual who gave you my personal information. I have dealt with very few in regard to this item and some have been of unscrupulous character. As a representative of the PADA, a promoter of ethical business practice, I am sure you understand.

No, frankly I did not understand. The fact he had engaged an attorney threw up all sorts of alarm bells, something did not smell right.  I had provided serious knowledge which could be easily followed up on the internet and it would seem he was unwilling to follow through on the provenance.  But truly intrigued, I followed up the conversation.

I am very perplexed. You did contact several members of PADA, you obviously provided them with information, as that is how I found out about you. It is immaterial who it is. I am a regular buyer and seller of this material. My ethics are beyond reproach.......
The piece you offered to me was priced in the stratosphere, many times above the market price. You arrived a price based on a Sotheby's comparable that is a disconnect and it will not sell to a dealer, private collector, or institution anywhere in the World. I've been in this field for many years both as a collector first and then a dealer and appraiser. Two and two do not equal four. I was making you aware that your desired price is unattainable, at Sotheby's, or any place else. Your chances of selling it at your desired price is unachievable. Many in your shoes have an inflated idea of what their property is worth. It is not uncommon, however, if you truly wish to sell the piece, I am happy to work with you at a price that is achievable in the market. It would be in my best interest to sell it at the highest price one could expect from a piece like this, but Five hundred thousand, or even a close percentage of that is not where the market is on the item you have. In speaking with my colleague, he told me he advised you the price was much too high.
Now, all of this said, I am perplexed as to why you have sent me an e-mail stating there is a lawyer involved at this point. We have only begun our introductory conversation on the item. At times I get to that point with a client with a valuable piece, but that is typically well down the line. Now, I am a potential willing buyer, or agent and it appears you have an item you wish to sell. I obviously need to know where the item came from, as my reputation becomes bound in with the item and I have to know the provenance, so that I am confident you have clear title, or I cannot have a further conversation about the item........
Anyhow, food for thought.
Sincerely yours,

Now all of these e-mails occurred over the space of approximately 24 hours and wouldn't you know, all of a sudden the next e-mail came and he has dropped the price from $500,000 to $100,000. Which while substantially lower was not a realistic price.

Under no circumstance would I consign my piece. The only way I would continue dealing with you is if I receive an offer of no less than $100,000. Obviously the information you received is inaccurate on numerous fronts.
Thank you for your interest

So I decided to continue with the conversation as I would for any item I planned to purchase for my inventory, or as an agent for one of my clients.  This time I asked for a high resolution scan of the item to see the condition of the piece as well as once again requesting the provenance, a question he he had not answered in one of my earlier e-mails.

$100,000 is a more realistic gross price, still ad tad high; but where it could be sent to several key collectors for an impression and a possibly a bite, or even if we get lucky, as sale. If I we were to act as your agent, we would need a detailed scan 150 dpi jpg minimum, 300 dpi preferred of the item out of the frame, both sides of the piece. Most of the collectors at this level are extremely concerned about condition and the scans you forwarded will not work. I also need to be able to discuss minute details like creases, tears etc. on the item with as much knowledge as possible. Collectors could care less about the frame and would want to take it to an archival framer and have it matted and molded to their liking, or have a custom leather binder made for the item. It is also important to insure that the piece they are buying has a good clean provenance as I discussed in my earlier e-mail, I need to be able to tell the client where the item has been since Arnold Schoenberg passed away. Obviously if we were to move forward and we do have a bite, I would have to fly out to wherever you are to see the item in person, that is unless you have any designs on coming into New York City.
If you would like to move forward, you now know what I need. If we get to the point that something positive happens, I will send you our standard written agreement and we can work from there.

A reply came, however, he would not forward a scan to me unless I sent him a check in advance and he still did not answer the question about provenance.

As explained previously, I am not interested in an agent as I have great interest internationally and have representation. If you wish to make a definitive offer of $100,000 to purchase the piece directly, I will be happy to comply with your request for a detailed scan.
Respectfully, if we can not proceed as I have outlined there is no reason to think we can move forward. Your company or personal check will be acceptable.
Thank you for your interest,

Now, it was very apparent something was truly amiss.  The expectation a buyer would forward a check of this size to a seller without seeing the piece was a ridiculous request.   What buyer for any item, would make an definitive offer to buy anything for $100,000 without kicking the tires.  Had there been legitimacy to this dance, the buyer would have forwarded scans for my examination so I could decide whether it was worth the price and go to pick the item up in person, negotiate more, or back out.  Further, an unimpeachable provenance with a clear lineage would need to be ascertained.  I would have to know I was purchasing an item that was legitimately his to sell and mine to own and resell.  So I followed up with what I thought would be the final bit of correspondence and I was not wrong.

I cannot commit this sort of money to a piece I have not seen. I cannot move forward with you unless I have seen a scan showing the piece in enough detail that I see any and all imperfections. The value of the piece is based upon perfection, tears, worn edges, sun fades, foxing, creases etc. have to be taken into consideration and your current digital photographs do not show detail at that level, they are fuzzy and pixelated. I have to be able to resell the item to one of my clients and I have to be able to know these things before I can make any sort of commitment. Further, after seeing the scans, if all looks well, I would have to expend capital to come out to wherever you are to see the item in person. Think about it, I'll assume you are a logical guy, would you commit to buy anything significant expending a large amount of capital if you had not seen the item? We are in a recession and I need to feel confident I could sell the item to one of my clients promptly.
Secondly, I need to understand how you came by a piece of this significance. Are you a member of the Schoenberg family? I have asked you several times for the information and you have avoided providing the provenance. If I were to spend a significant amount on this piece, I have to do my due diligence on the piece as well, to insure I am handling something that would legally be mine. Any dealer of upstanding character has to do this.
Please advise,
Sincerely yours,

That was the end of the conversation. I sent a follow up a few days later and asked him if their was a reply forthcoming to my questions, as expected, no reply.

A very detailed account of the piece and the Schoenberg Family's attempt to discuss the piece and meet with Mr. Fraser can be found on the composer's Grandson, Randol Schoenberg's blog.  


Now in my role as a known dealer and appraiser of such items, I hear all sorts of stories.  I have dealt with families who don't speak, where one side has knowledge and the other does not.  I have dealt with pieces which were gifted by a composer, or a musician to a favorite disciple.  I have dealt with marital disputes and yes as a dealer I have been offered items which I knew did not belong in the hands of the person offering them to me.    I remember a dumpster diver who came up with some important letters of a very famous composer.  The mistress who had not been in contact with her family had been sent to a nursing home and had not paid her rent.  Her landlord dumped the entire contents onto the street and I purchased the items and repatriated them with a family member of the composer who manages his archive.  I even purchased an item once from an overseas dealer I suspected of selling stolen property to see the library markings on the item first hand and determine if the items had been stolen.  He was arrested shortly thereafter and the story made the New York Times.


I called Randol Schoenberg today to see if there had been any communication from Mr. Fraser.  I decided to publish this article and expose what is really going on behind the scenes in this particular situation, a portion of the story the New York Times article could not tell.  Changing to Op-Ed mode, the intrigue surrounding this story smells of greed.  The Schoenberg family established and have long since given the Maestro's estate to the Schoenberg Center in Vienna. The piece obviously belongs to them and they will surely send it there to be united with the composer's other possessions.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no statute of limitations on stolen property anywhere in the Country.  As a casual acquaintance, there is no probability the composer would have given this prize possession to Joseph Schmidt.  The family knew the piece was there after the death of Schoenberg and his widow Gertrud would not have given her husband's prize souvenir of his relationship with Mahler to a man who had a cursory relationship with the family.  Further Mr. Schmidt lived in New York during the time between the composer and his widows death.  Dan Wakin published a statement by Mr. Fraser's Father that he had never seen the photograph before. I know music autograph collectors.  They are very proud of their holdings and prominently display their most important pieces and love discussing them with anyone who might take an interest.  Surely, a Father would have shared something of this importance with his son growing up. If Mr. Fraser's Grandfather did not display this piece in his home, or studio, the hiding of the photograph speaks louder than words. There is a reason it was found coated with dust behind a boiler in the basement. Mr. Fraser's Father went on to say that if he could, he would return the piece to the Schoenberg's. It is now up to Mr. Fraser to do the right thing and give the photograph back to the Schoenberg Family, so it can be placed in the Schoenberg Center for the World to see.

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