An Austrian court has ordered the seizure of an allegedly Nazi-looted artwork, an unprecedented step for a judicial system which has long been seen as not doing all it can to ensure the recovery of art looted by Nazis from Jews. The order, granted on 14 November by the Landesgericht für Strassachen, the court for criminal procedure in Vienna, was sought in the name of an heir of a Viennese Jew, Dr Heinrich Rieger, who died at Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. His collection of about 800 paintings, including many by the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, is claimed to have been taken or “aryanized” in the Nazi era.
The court action, invoking sections 98 and 143 of the Austrian code of criminal procedure, ordered the seizure and safekeeping of “House with Turret” (also called “Wayside Shrine”) by Egon Schiele based on the suspicion of concealment of stolen goods, and was issued against the object’s unidentified consignor at a forthcoming sale at Dorotheum, a Viennese auction house. The painting, estimated at €45,000-60,000 (£28,800-38,000; $45,000-60,600) in the auction catalogue, will remain in safekeeping at Dorotheum.
After the object’s publication in the Dorotheum catalogue, the seizure was sought because “we were afraid that the unknown consignor would take back the painting and we would again not know where it was,” Erika Jakubovits, executive director of the Presidency of the Jewish Community of Austria (IKG), which worked with an attorney for an heir of Dr Rieger to obtain the court seizure, told The Art Newspaper.
The IKG is the official representative of the Austrian Jewish Community and among other activities seeks restitution of artworks and property stolen from Jews in World War II. “I am absolutely sure that this painting would not have been brought to Christie’s or Sotheby’s, which have their own provenance review procedures, but Dorotheum is not sensitive to these issues,” Ms Jakubovits said.
The seizure is not an action by Austria seeking government confiscation of Nazi-looted art. It thus differs from a lawsuit in New York in which the US is seeking to confiscate an allegedly Nazi-looted painting also by Egon Schiele, loaned by the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Instead, the Vienna seizure is preliminary to possible private action to recover the painting. Although Austrian law favours owners who in “good faith” have acquired stolen objects, a lawsuit nonetheless will apparently take place. Ms Jakubovits and Dr Harry Neubauer, the attorney for one of the Rieger heirs, believe that Dorotheum will identify the consignor. If it does not, they say, the court will obtain that information for them, and the heirs will sue the consignor for the painting.
The names of Dr Rieger and the Austrian art dealer Friedrich Welz, who was listed in the Dorotheum catalogue as having owned “House with Turret” following Dr Rieger, appear in the US lawsuit seeking to confiscate the Leopold Museum painting, allegedly stolen by Welz from Viennese Jew Lea Bondi. The US government has stated in the Leopold case that Welz, who joined the Nazi party after applying in 1938, acquired Dr Rieger’s art collection through “aryanization” in about that year. After US forces seized Welz’s art collection following the war, the US says, the Bondi painting was erroneously mixed in with Dr. Rieger’s collection, eventually going to the Leopold Museum.
No list exists of Dr Rieger’s paintings, Ms Jakubovits said, because although Jews were required to file inventories of their property with the authorities by June 1938, any such lists of paintings owned by Austrian Jews “were removed from official locations and have not been found.”
The IKG has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in a New York federal lawsuit brought by Austrian Jews who lost property in the Nazi era. The lawsuit seeks an accounting from the Republic of Austria and Austrian state entities, including Dorotheum, which until recently was state-owned, of all “aryanized” property including artworks which they held or sold.