Mahler-Werfel restitution case revived, and put on hold

The council on looted art has postponed its decision on whether to return five paintings in the Oesterreiches Galerie to the granddaughter of Alma Mahler-Werfel


Is Austria changing direction on war loot restitution once again? In August, the government’s council on looted art, which decides the fate of art confiscated from Jewish families and placed in State museums, announced that it could not make up its mind about four paintings from the estate of Alma Mahler-Werfel, the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler (d.1911) and a prominent figure in Austrian cultural circles in her own right. A new hearing is expected later this month.

The pictures involved are “A summer's night on the beach” (1902) by Edvard Munch and three landscape paintings by Emil Jakob Schindler, Alma Mahler-Werfel's father.

At the time of Austria's unification with Germany, Alma Mahler was married to Franz Werfel, a Jewish writer and poet. The couple left Austria on the day the Germans marched in. A year before, they had loaned five paintings—the Munch (a gift from a previous husband, the architect Walter Gropius), three Schindlers, and a portrait of Alma by Oskar Kokoschka (once her lover)—to the Oesterreichische Galerie, and received a letter from a museum official recording the institution's gratitude for what was thought to be a two-year loan.

A month later, the pictures were in the hands of the Secessionist painter Carl Moll, Mahler-Werfel's stepfather, and a militant Nazi, who took custody of the works (and of Mahler-Werfel's house in Vienna), after claiming to be Mahler-Werfel's heir. In 1940, he sold the Munch back to the gallery for the relatively low price of 7,000 Reichsmarks.

In 1945, as the Russians approached Moll, Moll’s daughter and his son-in-law, Richard Ebersteller, fearing the retribution from the Red Army decided to commit suicide. Ebersteller shot his wife, Moll and then himself. It turned out that Ebersteller had willed all his property to the Austrian Gallery, and since he died minutes after Moll, was ruled to be his heir. The Schindler paintings went to the Austrian Gallery as a result.

At the end of the war, Mahler-Werfel claimed the five works, but the museum returned only the Kokoschka self-portrait to her.

After Alma Mahler-Werfel’s death in 1964, her daughter abandoned the effort. With the introduction of a new law that provides for the return of confiscated art in federal museums, Mahler-Werfel's granddaughter, Marina, has taken up the case anew.

In announcing that the decision on the Mahler-Werfel paintings would be delayed, the council’s chairman, Rudolf Wran, explained that the commission would be looking at new evidence, the nature of which he was under no obligation to disclose.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Mahler-Werfel case revived, and put on hold'