The family of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg is demanding the return of a long lost family treasure -- a signed photograph of fellow classical music great Gustav Mahler. The New York Times reports that one man in Los Angeles is willing to return it...for a small fee of $350,000.
The photograph in question is a framed portrait of Mahler inscribed with a musical quotation from his renowned Symphony No. 2. It was given to Schoenberg by the older master himself in 1907 and was considered by the owner to be one of his most precious possessions, according to the Times. But somewhere along the line, between 1907 and today, the photograph went missing and ended up in the hands of L.A. resident Cliff Fraser.
Fraser claims that the photograph was given to his grandfather by a composer in Schoenberg's circle years ago. This summer, he contacted the archivist at the Arnold Schoenberg Center via email to learn more about his grandpa's alleged gift, asking the Schoenbergs to help him "understand its significance," according to a blog post written by Schoenberg's grandson, Randol. This is when the battle over the lost heirloom began, as Fraser offered to return the photograph to its original owners, as long they paid him $350,000 to do so.
An image of the photograph sent to the Schoenberg Center by Fraser (courtesy of Ronal Schoenberg's blog, Schoenblog).
The Schoenberg Center archivist, Therese Muxeneder, told Fraser that Mahler had probably given the photo to Schoenberg as a parting gift before the elder composer left for New York to conduct the Metropolitan Opera. After doing so, she alerted the family of the photograph's resurfacing, who then took over communication with Fraser in hopes of reclaiming the piece. But in a series of e-mails exchanged between Fraser and several Schoenbergs, the L.A. resident made it clear that the photograph was his property and that the payment of a hefty price tag was the family's only path to getting it back.
The Schoenberg family maintains that the likelihood that Arnold voluntarily parted with the photograph, first discovered missing 25 years ago during an archival project at the University of Southern California, is slim. "The photo was a treasured memento of a true friend. It was prominently displayed in my grandfather's study, so we are certain that he and my grandmother would never have willingly given it away or sold it," Randol stated in an e-mail to The Huffington Post.
Beyond the photograph's significance as a family relic, Randol also points out the import of the work as an essential piece of modern music history and a reminder of the close relationship between two of the 20th century's most important composers. "Mahler supported my grandfather artistically and financially at a crucial time in my grandfather's artistic development, as he made the transition away from orthodox tonal composition," he said in his e-mail. "My grandfather adored Mahler, and staunchly defended him against his critics."
At present, the Schoenbergs are contemplating legal action and continue to raise awareness about the photograph's questionable provenance to prevent any auction house from brokering a sale. "We are still reviewing our options with regard to what will happen next," said Randol. "But of course we would very much like to see the photograph and the newer frame in order to determine if there are any other clues as to how it got to the Frasers."
Stay tuned for more information on this battle over the long-lost Mahler photo. In the meantime, let us know where you think the work belongs in the comments section.
UPDATE: In an email exchange with The Huffington Post, Clifford Fraser stated that his family obtained the photograph in the 1905s, when Josef Schmid (a composer and member of the Schoenberg circle) gave the memento as a gift to Fraser's grandfather. Fraser, upon finding the photograph years later in his grandparent's home, contacted the Schoenberg Center in Vienna before later being approached by the family regarding a possible sale. He declined their offer, at which point Fraser claims the Schoenbergs "pushed their claims that the photograph must have been improperly taken from their father's home."
Fraser has since spoken to experts at Princeton University and other local colleges who have verified that the musical inscription is actually Mahler's 3rd symphony -- not the 2nd, as the Schoenbergs had believed. When asked if Fraser has any plans on returning the photograph to the Schoenberg family, he responded, "If the photograph was improperly taken from the Schoenbergs, I would gladly return it. However, the Schoenbergs have been unable to provide any such evidence to prove this. Their claim is filled with inconsistencies and they have resorted to using deception in an effort to trick me into giving them the photograph."
Though Fraser had no knowledge of Schoenberg or Mahler's music before his discovery, he stated that the photograph holds sentimental value now. "Before making this amazing discovery, I knew very little about my grandfather's history. I am proud that my grandfather was affiliated with such great men as Schmid, Schoenberg, and Mahler."
With regards to his reluctance to initially speak with the press, Fraser stated, "I was surprised by the sudden interest, and at the time, was in the middle of midterms." He added that his father's previous statements do not reflect his family's position on the matter whatsoever.