When those works of art collectively called the “Mauerbach treasure” were sold in a public auction to the benefit of Holocaust victims in 1996, the Jewish Community of Vienna was, for the first time, confronted with Austria’s sluggish response to the restitution of works of art seized during the Nazi regime. Austria had not initiated any restitutions of expropriated works of art since 1945; works of art had only been returned in cases where the original owners or their heirs had taken the initiative to reclaim their property from Austrian institutions.
The confiscation in New York of two Schiele paintings from the Leopold Collection in January 1998, and the discussion about the Rothschild case were further factors in raising public awareness of expropriated works of art from Jewish art collections that have not yet been returned to their original owners but that are still in the possession of Austria.
A few months later, in December 1998, the Austrian Federal Act on the Restitution of Works of Art was passed governing the restitution of works of art and cultural assets currently in the possession of Austria. At the same time, a Commission for Provenance Research was established and instructed systematically to search for seized works of art in the museums, art collections and libraries of the federal government, to investigate the individual expropriation histories and, where possible, to find the original owners.
In October 1999, the Holocaust Victims’ Information and Support Centre of the Jewish Community of Vienna was co-opted into this Commission for Provenance Research to help in an advisory and reconciliatory role.
Since summer 1999, the issue of art restitution has become a core activity of the Jewish Community of Vienna, which sees itself as representing the interests of Jewish art collectors whose rights were violated, and their legal successors, and acts as an intermediary in communications with public institutions. In this context, the Jewish Community of Vienna undertakes research into the histories of individual art collections, the search for heirs of art collections formerly owned by Jews, and various forms of fundamental research, including the collection of archival materials relevant to on-going research into provenances.
In the course of such investigations, a fruitful co-operation and frequent methodical exchanges regarding existing files and other source material have grown between the organisation and various Austrian and international researchers, such as the Austrian Gallery Belvedere, the Albertina, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Museum for Applied Arts in Vienna, the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna, the Austrian National Library and the staff of the Archive of the Federal Monuments Office, among many others. It is noteworthy that in October 2003 the Austrian auction house Dorotheum, having long neglected research into its activities during the Nazi regime, started its first provenance research under its new management following privatisation in 2001.
By analogy with the Federal Act of 1998, the Vienna City Council adopted a similar municipal regulation for museums, art collections and libraries of the City of Vienna in April 1999. The Jewish Community of Vienna then succeeded in causing several other Austrian provincial governments to adopt laws or resolutions on art restitution. In provinces where there is no legislation for the restitution of works of art from public art collections, the Jewish Community of Vienna tries to facilitate restitutions by making the moral case and by supplying art-historical facts on a case-by-case basis. For example, the Jewish Community of Vienna convinced the City of Linz of the moral necessity to return Egon Schiele’s “Staedtchen am Fluss” (Little town by the river), formerly owned by Daisy Hellmann—a work of art for which an application for restitution had already been rejected—by presenting a new interpretation of the historical facts of the case.
According to the latest official restitution report (end of 2002) by the Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture, a total of 867 works of various kinds (from Klimt paintings to portrait photographs and coin collections) originating with 71 formerly Jewish art collections have been restored from nine museums, art collections and libraries of the federal government since the adoption of the Austrian Act on Art Restitution.
Although successful restitutions have been achieved through focused research in individual museums, numerous cases in federal and provincial museums still need to be solved by Austrian provenance research. There should be statutory provisions for active provenance research and art restitution by all public museums at present without such provisions—and particularly for the Leopold Collection. The formerly private art collection of Rudolph Leopold was transformed into a private foundation in 1994 by the Federal Act Regulating the Financing of the Acquisition of the “Leopold Collection”. The foundation has, however, a very close affiliation—financially and according to its articles of association—with Austria, which undertook to build a new museum for the collection and to subsidise the current operation of the institution. Nevertheless, the collection remains the private property of the foundation and, according to current legal provisions, is not covered by the Austrian Act on Art Restitution.
Five years after the beginning of provenance research in Austria there are not only legal issues to be solved, but also questions regarding historical research methods and the archives of individual museums. Austrian provenance research needs increased publicity of its results and achievements. To this end, now is the time to organise a joint symposium of the Jewish Community of Vienna and the Commission for Provenance Research, where outstanding questions and problems of provenance research, the search for heirs, the variety of approaches to restitution, and the establishment of a network of international experts can be explored. In co-operation with numerous Austrian and international provenance researchers, a uniform solution for legal problems could be found and historical research could be systematised and completed to a far more easily than at present. Another desirable measure would be the publication of a detailed report on what focused provenance research in the individual museums has achieved and what restitutions have taken place as the result of structured and transparent co-operation by all parties.
The writer is executive director of the Jewish Community of Vienna
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Some progress, but much more needs to be done'