U.S. lawyer says he will file US$1 billion lawsuit over postwar sales of artworks seized by Nazis

1945 1 April 2004

VIENNA, Austria (AP)- Using a musty bank vault as a backdrop, an American lawyer said Thursday he planned to file a US$1 billion lawsuit on behalf of Holocaust victims whose artworks were stolen by the Nazis and sold off after World War II.

New York-based attorney Edward D. Fagan said a new group calling itself the Association of Holocaust Victims for the Restitution of Artwork and Masterpieces would call on Austrian banks, the Austrian government and Sotheby's auction house to return paintings and other works allegedly sold without the permission of their original Jewish owners.

A draft of the lawsuit handed out to reporters Thursday named Bank Austria/Creditanstalt, Landerbank and Erste Bank, but did not name the Austrian government or Sotheby's.

Fagan said he would file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York, but it was unclear late Thursday whether the suit had been filed.

Fagan contended that the missing artworks include paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Delacroix and other Impressionist masters.

The plaintiffs, who were not identified by name, were said to include several dozen families, mostly Jews, from Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Germany, Israel, Poland, Switzerland, the United States and other countries.

Fagan said lawsuit would accuse the banks, government and auction houses for "the systematic theft of great artwork, masterpieces and collections," and would seek between US$100 million and US$1 billion in damages if the artworks _ valued at between US$2 million and US$5 million apiece _ cannot be returned.

At a press conference in a Vienna cafe, Fagan showed reporters a sketch he said was drawn by an unidentified former employee of Bank Austria/Creditanstalt, purportedly showing the location of a secret vault concealed beneath a trap door that once contained priceless paintings unclaimed after the war.

He then led several dozen journalists on a walk to the bank's nearby headquarters, where flustered officials agreed to unlock the cellar and open several vaults. None contained anything more than old books and dusty boxes of documents and files.

Nonplussed, Fagan said he never expected to see artworks, which he contended were sold off by Sotheby's and other auction houses with the complicity of Bank Austria/Creditanstalt, Erste Bank and the Austrian government, which he said issued export licenses allowing the works to leave the country.

The works' rightful owners, he said, were mostly Jews who perished in the Holocaust _ the Nazis' extermination of 6 million people.

Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, one year before the war began in Europe.

"We are accusing the banks of engaging in the trafficking of stolen Holocaust artwork," Fagan said. "It's not sufficient to say, ``We don't have anything.' A New York court is going to say, ``Well, you've got something - show me.'"

A 16-page draft of the lawsuit alleges that the banks "developed systems and schemes through which they collected, took title to and/or profited from artwork ... which the defendant Austrian banks knew, had reason to know and/or upon the exercise of reasonable diligence could have discovered were stolen from Holocaust victims."

Bank Austria, which recently merged with Creditanstalt, paid US$45 million in 1999 to settle a lawsuit brought by Fagan on behalf of Jews whose gold and other financial assets were stolen by the Nazis and allegedly fell into the bank's hands after the war.

Spokesman Peter Thier said the bank was eager to cooperate in any way and show it does not possess artworks or other valuables seized by the Nazis. He said the bank was working closely with an independent historical commission set up in the mid-1990s to handle claims by victims of Nazi looting.

Oliver Rathkolb, a ranking member of the commission, told the Austria Press Agency there was "no evidence of a connection between art theft" and the bank.

"We have no problem with exposing the truth. We want to be as transparent as possible," Thier said, conceding that if proof exists that the bank was involved in illegal sales of artwork, "it would be a catastrophe."

A respected Austrian newspaper, Der Standard, reported Thursday that one of the disputed masterpieces is "Mount Sinai," an oil by El Greco that surfaced a decade ago at an open market in Vienna, only to disappear until it was auctioned by Sotheby's for US$5 million five years ago.
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