In art circles, that question has been in the air since year-end, when the news broke that the provenance of two paintings by Egon Schiele was clouded by Nazi plundering.
Ronald S. Lauder is the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, where the paintings, borrowed from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna, were on view when two families claimed them. He is well acquainted with Dr. Rudolf Leopold, whose vast art holdings are to be enshrined in a new museum in Vienna. Mr. Lauder owns 20 Schieles, helped bring the Leopold Collection to New York and paid half of its exhibition costs.
Mr. Lauder is also a former American Ambassador to Austria, where the initial indignation over the claims turned to anger when the Manhattan District Attorney's office started a criminal investigation of the case and issued a subpoena preventing the return of the works to Vienna.
And he is chairman of the World Jewish Congress's new Commission for Art Recovery, which was created to help families reclaim stolen art.
As surely as all roads once led to Rome, in this instance all roads led to Ronald, as he is known to his friends.
Yet while the art world has looked to him for leadership, Mr. Lauder has been conspicuously absent, at least publicly. "I don't believe in talking unless you know all the facts," he explained more than once during two recent interviews.
Depending on the vantage point, either Mr. Lauder has a titanic conflict of interest, being chairman of both the Modern and the recovery commission, or he is the only one who knows all the players and can broker a resolution. Either way, his reticence has some skeptics questioning the credibility of his commission, though none would do so publicly.
Normally, Mr. Lauder, though not a publicity hound, is not shy about making things happen. Tall and square-shouldered, he long ago left the family cosmetics business to pursue his own interests and devote time to philanthropy and public policy, including Republican politics. In recent years he has championed term limits for New York City officials, pushed the Presidential candidacy of Colin L. Powell in 1995 and helped organize a 1996 auction of unclaimed objects that had been stolen by the Nazis in Austria, to cite just a few examples.
Mr. Lauder, 53, has the air and bearing of the very wealthy, yet he sometimes alternates between extreme self-confidence and caution, between pugnaciousness and pliancy. On the subject at hand, he chooses his words carefully, upholding the museum's position that the paintings should go back to Austria. Then, he says, the matter will be settled to everyone's satisfaction.
"Ronald is in an almost impossible situation," declared his brother, Leonard A. Lauder, the chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art. "On the one hand, he was trying to bring sense and sensibility to the restitution of works of art taken during the war. On the other, he is chairman of the Modern, which has a contract. And on the bigger issue, American museums that depend on international loans are now going to be hard pressed to get them."
He added, "This is an emotionally charged situation where the person in the middle risks getting knocked off."
For his part, Ronald Lauder said, "People with claims want you to dive right in, but we have to make sure we know enough before we dive in."
Nevertheless, he has not been inactive. He has had one "fairly amicable" telephone conversation with Dr. Leopold and had spoken with Austrian officials; he has met once with District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, who issued the subpoena, and he has urged Constance Lowenthal, whom he hired to direct the Commission for Art Recovery, to look into the families' claims. He has also consulted frequently with Glenn D. Lowry, the Modern's director.
Mr. Lauder also seemed to exert a restraining hand in Washington. On Jan. 7, Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, Republican of New York, wrote to the Customs Service urging it to seize the entire Leopold Collection as stolen property. Within hours, Senator D'Amato wrote again rescinding his missive.
A spokesman for the Senator said the letter was withdrawn because it asserted criminal activity without sufficient information and denied that Mr. Lauder had been an influence. Mr. Lauder, however, said that someone in his office had conveyed his opinion to someone in Senator D'Amato's office, adding, "It was my strong view that the paintings should go back."
But Mr. Lauder's intervention so far has dismayed those sympathetic to the claimants, who see his response as one-sided. "If Lauder won't take a stand on this case, then why have a Commission for Art Recovery?" said Willi Korte, a stolen-art investigator who has been retained by the family of Lea Bondi Jaray, a Jewish art dealer who fled Vienna in 1938 without her beloved Schiele, "Portrait of Wally." After the war, "Wally" ended up in Austria's National Gallery, which traded it to Dr. Leopold.
Indeed, Mr. Lauder has not spoken with either of the two parties in direct conflict: the families and Klaus A. Schroder, the Leopold Museum's managing director, who was installed by Austria against Dr. Leopold's wishes.
A Frosty Tone As Ambassador
This is not the first time Ronald Lauder, who as an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire is worth $2.4 billion, according to Forbes Magazine, has found himself in a sticky situation.
When he became Ambassador in April 1986, Mr. Lauder was welcomed in Austria as an ardent fan of Viennese culture. But his reputation there soured, as did American relations with Austria, when within weeks Kurt Waldheim was elected President despite allegations that he had participated in Nazi war crimes. Mr. Lauder refused to attend Mr. Waldheim's inauguration.
Apart from that, Austrians were put off by the phalanx of bodyguards that protected Mr. Lauder and his family. And they resented what many considered the preferential treatment afforded him in the granting of art export licenses.
The controversy centered on two works, a 15th-century stained glass window and Schiele's "Trees in Winter," which he bought for $1.2 million. Most Schiele works, considered national patrimony, cannot be exported.
Mr. Lauder said the charges were bogus, that the seller of the Schiele painting obtained an export license for it in exchange for bequeathing another painting, by Gustav Klimt, to Austria's National Gallery. Jane Kallir, the Manhattan dealer who acted on behalf of the seller, independently related the same sequence of events. As for the stained glass, Mr. Lauder said it didn't exist. "I bought nothing else that needed an export license," he stated.
In October 1987, just 18 months after arriving, Mr. Lauder packed up and came home.
Austria had been an eye-opener for him, however. Ten years ago, commenting on his tenure there, he told The New York Times, "It did make me aware of my Jewishness, and the more I became aware of it, the stronger I felt." Upon his return he established the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which finances Jewish schools, camps and community centers in Europe. And he became active in Jewish causes like the World Jewish Congress, of which he is treasurer.
When the time came to select a chairman for the art-recovery commission last September, he was the first and only choice, said Elan Steinberg, the Congress's executive director. Mr. Lauder started collecting art at age 13 with his bar mitzvah money; now his collection includes medieval art, arms and armor, 19th- and 20th-century art and Old Master drawings. Last year, he paid $50 million for Cezanne's "Still Life, Flowered Curtain and Fruit."
Although Leonard Lauder, the chief executive of Estee Lauder and a collector of Cubist art, is widely considered the shrewder businessman, Ronald is viewed by many art experts as having the better eye.
Discussing matters other than art, Mr. Lauder often seems ill at ease, hesitating and looking around the room before answering. But giving a tour of the art in his offices, mostly by Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke and other Germans, his intimacy with the works is apparent.
Mr. Lauder keeps his "older art" in the Park Avenue home he shares with his wife, Jo Carole (his two grown daughters now gone). One recent visitor was astonished to find seven Brancusi sculptures in one room.
Mr. Lauder had other qualifications for his new task at the art commission. "I bring a unique capability to this," he boasted. "I speak French and German, and I am totally at home in the parts of the world where this is happening." In 1996 he was tapped for the independent commission investigating dormant Jewish accounts in Swiss banks.
Sees 'Quantum Leap' Toward Recovery
The pressure to get the art-recovery operation under way is enormous. Mr. Lauder said he had been chairman for less than 24 hours when the first call from a potential claimant came in. Inquiries are now arriving at the rate of one a day.
Over the next six months, Mr. Lauder plans to meet with museum officials around the world and to assess the relevant laws in the United States and in Europe. Then he wants to establish a set of international procedures for processing ownership claims that each country would agree to. Such an accord would be no mean feat. "But I still believe I will get one," he said. "And at that moment we will have made a quantum leap in solving this question."
Mr. Lauder is well aware, from the cases that have emerged, that many are complex and convoluted. The families involved don't always know the truth. To avoid discussing painful experiences, Holocaust survivors often mixed lore with reality. Family branches were sometimes separated, leaving one side in the dark about the other's activities. Many works have changed hands many times.
Mr. Lauder and Ms. Lowenthal will thus be pushing to negotiate claims rather than litigate them. "If we treat each case -- and there'll be hundreds -- as front-page news, with lawyers and seizures, we'll never succeed in getting this moving in the right direction," Mr. Lauder said. The commission, he added, plans to take up cases of art stolen from museums and non-Jews during the war as well as art forfeited under duress. Though it will hire some staff, the group will depend heavily on volunteers, including lawyers.
To those who say his performance on the Schiele case is troubling, Mr Lauder has a response. "These pictures, if they are stolen art, it makes no difference if they are in New York City or in Vienna or where they are," he said.
Rather than raise the temperature, Mr. Lauder wants to cool things down. "The international art community and the Jewish community would be better served by looking at this and coming up with something all museums and collectors and claimants can sign up to," he said.