On the ICCR Blog

Restitution in Austria: Still a long way to go

posted by Jérôme Segal on April 23, 2008

The Republican Club, a leftist lobbying group established after the Waldheim Affair, invited five experts yesterday to discuss the question of art restitution. Since mid-February this year, the Leopold Museum which contains the most important Austrian collection of modern art, is showing a very controversial Albin Egger-Lienz exhibition. The controversy started when art historians found out that some of the paintings had been looted by the Nazis or sold at a ridiculous price by Jews who had to flee the Third Reich, and then sold to art merchants (The New York Times reported). The 83 year old art collector Rudolf Leopold who reigns in “his” museum with an iron hand has already been engaged in a legal dispute in the US for more than ten years because one of his Schiele paintings, “Portrait of Wally”, which has been confiscated when he lent it for an exhibition in New York (Forbes reported). The thing is that Leopold never expressed the slightest willingness to clear the different cases, always answering “In my eyes, the pictures were acquired lawfully”. During the Egger-Lienz dispute, taking the example of the restitution to the Rothschild family, he criticized those who dared sell the paintings they got back with “For those people, it’s all about money”, and everyone knows he meant “the Jews” with that expression.

So much for the context of this evening. The guests were Sophie Lillie (art historian who defends the interests of looted persons), Eva Blimlinger (from the newly appointed commission on art restitution), Alfred Noll (lawyer who defends such persons), Thomas Trenkler (journalist at Der Standard who regularly challenges Leopold) and Robert Holzbauer (art historian employed at the Leopold museum to identify the origins of the paintings). I must say that I found Holzbauer quite courageous to accept the invitation. It appeared that the press attaché of the museum was also in the audience, he took part in the discussion and none of them had an easy job.

- Eva Blimlinger started with a description of the general situation but she was not allowed to report on the actual work of the commission.

- Alfred Noll went on commenting on the “art restitution law” (Kunstrückgabegesetz), which was passed in December 1998, following the Schiele affair in New York. This law does not guarantee any right to the looted persons (or the inheritors). It does not even foresee a possibility for them to become a legal party. The ministries are just “empowered” to return the art objects, allowed, but do not have to.

Regarding the Leopold museum case, it is not a federal museum but, like many important museums, an institution run by a foundation (the Leopoldstiftung). Hence, this law does not apply. Whereas most of the media discusses the possibility to include the Leopold museum in this law (arguing, for instance, that this foundation is mostly financed by the federal State), Noll made clear that it wouldn’t help that much, since the empowerment law is too weak. He is quite pessimistic.

- Thomas Trenkler, the journalist, drew on the story of the 1998 law and underlined the differences in international laws. Whereas in the UK or in the US, it is possible to sue someone who bought (even in good faith) a stolen piece of art, it is not the case in Austria. He criticized Rudolf Leopold harshly, who, as he said, has never been interested much, in knowing about the past of the paintings he was buying.

- Robert Holzbauer tried to defend the museum he is working for. He spoke about the British museum who is trying to give back to Spain an old missal but does not have the right to do so. “At least, they’re willing to give it back”, came rapidly from the audience, which caused smiles and laughs.

- Sophie Lillie, a young art historian who published monumental Was einmal war. Handbuch der enteigneten Kunstsammlungen Wiens (What once was. Handbook of stolen art collections, Vienna 2003, more than 1000 pages), insisted on the fact that the Leopold Museum was absolutely not cooperative. Moreover, she criticized the laws, which made the first restitution very difficult, since the claiming party had to be aware and know the location of the art work they were claiming. It is thanks to the fact that more and more art collections are online that it is possible to have restitution cases (see for instance the website lootedart.com).

In the general discussion, the question was raised whether the majority of Austrian people were willing for restitutions to take place. If no, it would explain why the social democratic and the conservative parties are so hesitant. Only the Green party seem to have a sincere will to accomplish the needed “travail de mémoire”, which is still lacking in Austria. As often in Austrian politics, commissions have been established. One for the inquiry on the origins of the Leopold collection, and one to propose changes in the 1998 restitution law (they speak about a “Novellierung”, an amendment). It is assumed that before the summer, minor changes will be agreed, like an extension of the law on the 1933-1938 period and on Germany, since as it stands now, it only covers pieces of art, which were looted after the Anschluss only in Austria. A second law might come later, probably just to include the Leopold Foundation in the ameliorated 1998 law. The discussion could also have concerned the Jewish cemeteries, which are left abandoned (whereas Nazi graves are well preserved by the State), the recognition of gay people, deserters and other minorities, who suffered during the Nazi-period (issues that are raised by the Greens)… There is definitely still a long way to go, 70 years after the Anschluss, for Austria to acknowledge its past and responsibilities.

Jérôme Segal

PS/ Many thanks to Niki for the English editing of my text.