Counsels of very grudging justice: Austrian government divided on restitution claims

The Austrian Parliament decided that full restitution should be made to victims of the Nazis and to those who had been coerced into giving works after 1945 to the museums - but the advisory council has twice taken its own, negative, line


In December 1973, Bruno Kreisky, who had been ruling Austria virtually single-handedly for more than three years, received a letter from his minister of economic affairs, Hertha Firnberg. The issue which Ms Firnberg wanted to present to the federal Chancellor was not earth-shattering: a Jewish lady, Alice Kantor, who had been driven out of Vienna in 1930, claimed a drawing by Gustav Klimt from the Albertina Collection as her own and her brother’s property. The picture had hung in the office of her father, a well known lawyer in the city. It had been confiscated and sold off, together with his entire art collection, by the Nazi party after the siblings’ escape. But the director of the Albertina, Walter Koschatzky, did not want to relinquish the drawing “Lady with feather boa”. Eloquently he declared his doubts about the authenticity of the drawing. He explained that the measurements did not match and, besides, Klimt had drawn many pictures of the kind. Press polemics about this case, initiated by Simon Wiesenthal, did not manage to change Mr Koschatzky’s attitude.

Ms Firnberg, the minister responsible in this case, reported to the Chancellor, who had previously intervened in favour of Alice Kantor, now resident in New York. Before she came to her conclusion, the Social Democrat Ms Firnberg listed three pages of arguments as to why the Klimt drawing should not be returned. She warned Mr Kreisky: “I must advise you of the risk of setting a precedent which might arouse vast numbers of restitution claims.”

Ms Firnberg knew what she was talking about. Thirty-five years had passed since the organised looting in which Vienna’s Jewish middle class lost its art collections. According to the Nazi’s own statistics, the confiscated fortune of Viennese Jews, in jewellery, precious metals and works of art alone, had a value in today’s terms of approximately ASch2.7 billion (£117 million; $188 million).

Many Holocaust survivors searched tirelessly for their possessions in the post-war years, just like Ms Kantor. Often the search was futile and those who found them usually had to present valuable works of art to the Austrian State museums in order to be allowed to take at least part of their collections abroad. The Austrian museums always invoked the export embargo implemented after World War II, which forbad all export of valuable works of art.

Ms Kantor gave up in the mid 70s. In the end not even Mr Kreisky could or would help her. Under pressure from the Austrian authorities, who warned her of lengthy and expensive legal proceedings, and against compensation of ASch50,000, which she gave the Jewish community in Vienna, she renounced her claim to the Klimt drawing in the Albertina. It took another twenty-five years until she finally saw another chance of obtaining at least this one picture from her father’s former collection.

Early in November 1998, the Austrian Nationalrat (national council), at the behest of central government, resolved upon a law that, although belated, might nevertheless serve justice. This stated that all works of art which had become Austrian State property as a consequence of “aryanisation”, or which had been extorted from their owners as part of export proceedings after 1945, should be returned.

This development could be traced back to two events. First, two paintings by Egon Schiele from the Leopold Collection, on loan to an exhibition in New York, were seized by a New York court upon the request of the heirs of the original owners. One of these, “Dead city”, once belonged to the cabaret-artist Fritz Grünbaum, who died in Dachau; the other belonged to the art-dealer, Lea Bondi-Jaray, and was claimed to have been taken by Nazi sympathiser Friedrich Welz.

Second, in the a series of articles, the daily paper, Der Standard, revealed the post-war practice of Austrian museums and government art administrators of extorting valuable donations from emigré Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime in exchange for permission to export part of their collections.

It at once become apparent that the plaque put up in the stairwell of the Kunsthistorisches Museum expressing gratitude to numerous generous donors is really evidence of coercion: the brothers Alphonse and Louis Rothschild, the Polish Counts Lanckoronski and many others had only made donations because they were forced to do so by the Bundesdenkmalamt (federal department of monuments and museums).

Elizabeth Gehrer, the relevant minister did two things. First, she set up a provenance committee under the chairmanship of the Generalkonservator (chief curator), Ernst Bacher, and all federal museums were ordered to examine their inventory in detail. Second, with the decision by the Nationalrat of 5 November 1998, a Beirat (advisory committee) was constituted to examine individual cases and then to make recommendations to the minister regarding restitution. However, the seven-member Beirat was made up representatives of the Austrian Ministries of Education, Economy, Defence, Justice and Finance, with only two independent voices, a historian and an art-historian.

The first case, decided early in 1999, was the most prestigious. Betty Looram, daughter of Alphonse and Clarice Rothschild, had applied for restitution of those works of art which had been extorted from her mother and her uncle Louis after the war. Together with a niece and nephew, she got back 241 works of art. Almost every State museum in Vienna was affected. Last summer 224 of the 241 items were auctioned in London, to the annoyance of many Austrian museum directors who saw masterpieces such as David Teniers’ “Small gallery picture” and the portraits by Frans Hals enter other museums or private collections.

The second case, brought before the advisory committee even before the summer, also ended positively. The heirs of the art patron Erich Lederer, who had fled to Geneva, got back fourteen works of art, among them Gentile Bellini’s “Cardinal Bessarion loses the cross reliquary”, which had graced the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum for half a century.

Already unofficial objections were being raised by the Beirat that Austria was needlessly reducing its stock of art treasures. One member of the Beirat, the Viennese art historian Artur Rosenauer, did so very publicly. Towards the end of June, immediately before the Rothschild auction, he published an “open letter” in the Neue Kronen Zeitung, the newspaper with highest circulation in the country, to Ms Gehrer. In it he recommended the repurchase of recently returned works of art: “Again and again one hears that the Austrian government is giving back these works of art because ultimately it does not value them. I think it is essential that, for the country’s international image, Austria should show that it considers the restitution of these works of art a great loss, and that it is prepared to make sacrifices in order to reacquire them.” There could not have been a cruder distortion of the facts; the art historian was suggesting that Austria was making great sacrifices and suffering heavy losses, completely ignoring who the real victims had been—Austria’s Jews.

The day Dr Rosenauer published his open letter, the Beirat decided against a restitution case for the first time. Sixteen Klimt drawings and twenty pieces of Vienna porcelain were returned to the heirs of the sugar-industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, but not the five, extremely valuable, paintings by Klimt, which had been confiscated from the home of the collector (a patron of the Nazis).

In their negative report to minister Gehrer, the Beirat quoted the will of the industrialist’s wife who had died in 1925, in which she asked her husband to bequeath the family-owned paintings by Klimt to the Österreichische Galerie in the Belvedere. At that time, the widower had promised to fulfil his wife’s wish. However, the following facts were deliberately ignored by the Beirat: under the Nazis, the museum had confiscated three paintings from this collection while Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was still alive (which was an offence against Adele Bloch-Bauer’s will); there was no mention of such a bequest in the will drawn up by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer in 1945, and the donation to the museum made by the heirs after the war was another case of official extortion in order to free up other works of art for export.

By six votes to one abstention, the members of the Beirat decided against restitution. As a result, some of the joint heirs brought a suit against the republic of Austria.

From last summer, it became obvious that the Beirat was in disarray. Even if the need for restitution had been emphasised by the law in parliament, legal technicalities were being dug up to prevent these restitutions. The five paintings by Klimt, among them the two famous portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, are indeed of inestimable value to Austria; under no circumstances could they therefore be lost. There was heated debate in the Beirat over this because one member did not consider the arguments of the majority to be valid. Eventually four months passed before the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer actually got back the Klimt drawings and Vienna porcelain, with every imaginable bureaucratic obstacle put in their way

A few weeks later the next negative verdict was pronounced. This time it concerned the granddaughter of Alma Mahler-Werfel. She requested the restitution of a painting by Edvard Munch which Alma’s stepfather, the Viennese painter Carl Moll, had sold to the Österreichische Galerie under the Nazis without her knowledge. Now the Beirat limited itself to a strictly legal opinion without making public statements on the moral merits of the case. These aspects had, however, been comprehensively discussed among its members, although there was no mention of them in the ministry’s press release despite the agreement by the members of the Beirat to make them public.

Against this background, other favourable decisions by the Beirat went almost unnoticed. The 101-year-old heir of Count Anton Lanckoronski, resident in Rome, re-obtained a painting by Dosso Dossi, which Lanckoronski had been coerced into giving to the Kunsthistorisches Museum after 1945 in exchange for an export permit for his collection. The painting, “Zeus as painter of the world”, will shortly be exhibited in Warsaw.

The daughter of the industrialist Edwin Czeczowicka received back more than she had originally requested. In addition to two medieval miniatures she was also awarded a chalk drawing by Jean-François Millet, which the provenance researcher of the Albertina, Maren Gröning, had discovered in the inventory of the museum.

The heir of the Jewish family Fould-Springer regained a small oil painting by Johann Gualbert Raffalt, “Hungarian shepherd boy”, which had been a forced gift to the Österreichische Galerie. The requests for restitution by the heirs of the industrialist Oscar Bondy were also dealt with positively. Eventually it was Ms Kantor’s turn. In the spring of 1999 she requested the restitution of the Klimt drawing “Lady with feather boa” from the Albertina. She had even declared herself willing to repay the ASch50,000 which she had received in compensation in the 70s, and which she had donated to the Jewish community in Vienna. This time the Beirat proved to be understanding. It waived the refund of the money and recommended to minister Gehrer that the picture be restituted.

The Beirat is, nonetheless, viewed with considerable scepticism because of its decisions against restitution in the Bloch-Bauer case, which is now to be examined by an independent court, and in the case of Marina Mahler-Werfel.

The resignation of one of its members is a sign of this unease. The art-historian Ilsebill Barta-Fliedl, who had been appointed by the ministry of finance, announced her resignation at the beginning of December. It is known unofficially that Dr Barta-Fliedl had voiced strong objections to the decision of her colleagues not to return the five paintings by Gustav Klimt.

Hubertus Czernin lives in Vienna and is an author and publisher. His most recent book is Die Falschung? Der Fall Bloch-Bauer und das Werk Gustav Klimts (The Forgery? the Bloch-Bauer case and the work of Gustav Klimt).