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Restitution

Austria makes legal amends by passing a bill ensuring restitution

Works acquired in a “suspicious manner” will begin to be returned at once

As a direct result of the outcry raised by the seizure of the two paintings by Egon Schiele in New York, the Austrian government, under the leadership of the social democrat Viktor Klima, passed a bill in parliament last month on the restitution of works of art stolen from Jewish owners. All works of art that formerly belonged to Jewish owners and entered an Austrian museum in a “suspicious manner” must be returned to their owners or their owners’ heirs. A major claim, for seven Klimt paintings in the Oesterreichische Galerie has already been lodged by an eighty-two year-old emigrant living in Los Angeles (see p. 5).

In January, the minister in charge of museums, Elisabeth Gehrer, requested ten museums, the National Library and the office for the protection of monuments, to investigate all acquisitions that might be regarded as “suspicious”, made between 1938 (when Austria was annexed by the Third Reich) and 1945. She hopes that restitutions will begin before the end of the year. At present only the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has completed its inventory, according to the press, and has identified 900 works of art that fall into the above category. Included are the priceless items from the collection of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family, with at least two portraits by Frans Hals. Another museum in Vienna, which has not yet completed its register, owns several paintings by Klimt which were previously the property of the Bloch-Bauer family.

The legal status of the works of art covered by the bill is not uniform because they entered the museum collections in various ways. One group was deposited in museums by the Nazi authorities, mainly by the Gestapo. The largest category contains the works forcibly donated to museums by Jewish families who had emigrated; in exchange for these “involuntary gifts” they received export licences for their less valuable possessions. The museums also house plundered works deposited there by the Nazis, or by owners who have since died or failed to reappear. If the bill goes through, objects with no living owner will be sold for charity.

This courageous plan for the restitution of the confiscated works aroused an immediate reaction from Joerg Haider, leader of the nationalist right. His objections provoked a general outcry from the other political parties; a Green deputy accused him of “trivialising the Holocaust”.

Indeed, Joerg Haider compared the fate of the Jewish victims of the holocaust with the fate of the three or so million Sudeten Germans expelled by the government of Czechoslovakia after 1945. Mr Haider complains that, “When Jewish emigrants press claims, they seem to receive unlimited compensation. When Germans from Sudetenland [...] press similar claims, they are told that such demands have to end at some point.” He concludes that “similar events cannot be treated in different ways”. The president of the Austrian Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, called his remarks “obscene” and drew attention to Mr Haider’s personal circumstances: “He lives today in a property worth hundreds of millions of Schillings, which was extorted from a Jewish family forced to sell it for only about ASch100,000”. Mr Haider’s colossal estate formerly belonged to a Jewish family forced into exile in Palestine after 1938; it was acquired by Mr Haider’s uncle, who left it to his nephew in his will.

o The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will host a symposium on the records and research relating to Holocaust-era assets on 4 December at the National Archives, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland 207040-6001. For further details, visit the NARA website at: http://www.nara.gov/nara/events/sympann.html or by e-mail at: oloc.assets@arch2.nara.gov

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Austria makes legal amends'