Stealing beauty

1945 13 February 2004
David Rapp

What became of the thousands of artworks stolen from their Austrian Jewish owners by the Nazis? A persistent young Jewish researcher went on a journey of discovery in her native Vienna - and found a heap of dusty answers.

A large and strange golden ball is poised on the Secession Art Building in Vienna, which was established by the Austrian Secessionist movement, of which the most famous member was Gustav Klimt. In 1902, in the basement of the building, Klimt showed "Apres Beethoven" - a fresco in which there are three long strips with fantastical figures: a scary gorilla, a loving couple and, of course, many women, devilishly beautiful, typical of the complexity of the painter's mind.

Klimt died in February, 1918. The allegorical figures he painted on walls at the beginning of the last century - among them "Disease," "Death," "Mania" and "Profound Sorrow" - were harbingers of the storm that shook all of Europe at the end of the 1930s. The many visitors who even today descend to the Secession basement to look at "Apres" do not know that this painting, too, was at the eye of a storm.

"Apres" was purchased in 1913 by Jewish art collectors Ernst and Serena Lederer. Ernst died in 1936, two years before the Anschluss, the voluntary annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany. The collection was confiscated from Serena in 1940 and she fled to Budapest, where she died three years later. The Gestapo transferred the collection to Immendorf Castle, but the castle was set on fire in May, 1945 so that it would not fall into the hands of the Allies and the collection was destroyed.

"Apres Beethoven" was kept somewhere else and thus was saved. In 1950 it was returned to Austria. The Lederers' son, Erich, who was a friend and patron of Egon Schiele, applied at that time to the Austrian government, demanding to obtain possession of the work. It was made clear to him that "Apres" did indeed belong to him, but by law he could not take it out of the country and take it to Switzerland, where he lived. Lederer finally decided to sell "Apres" to the national museum and from there the work was returned to its original site.

A few minutes' walk away is the huge imperial complex of the Hofburg, which served the Hapsburg dynasty for hundreds of years. This is the heart of Vienna and there, among the other monuments, is also an unprepossessing bureau called the Federal Monuments Office. Sophie Lillie, a researcher of art history who is Jewish and was born in Vienna, arrived at this office in 1995 when she was 25 years old, after having completed her master's degree at Columbia University in New York. The Jewish community in Vienna contacted her to help them document some 1,000 works of art that had belonged to Jewish collectors before the war before they were sold. The items were transferred to the community after the Austrian government admitted its failure in finding the heirs of the legal owners.

"In 1945 the Allies found a large part of the works that the Nazis had confiscated," said Lillie this week in a telephone interview. "In Austria, for example, many of the collections were hidden in the salt mines. At the beginning of the 1950s the Austrian government took possession of the property - which was called "the Mauerbach collection" after the monastery near Vienna where it had been kept by the Nazis - and undertook to find the owners. This did not happen."

Six days, six years

The works of art meanwhile gathered dust in warehouses. During the 1980s an investigative report on the Mauerbach collection was published in the American periodical ArtNews. In the wake of prolonged public pressure, the Austrian government decided in 1995 to transfer the entire collection to the Jewish community in Vienna. It was agreed that a public auction would be held at which all the items would be sold and that the money collected in this way would be distributed, according to a complicated method, to needy Holocaust survivors and a number of Jewish organizations.

Lillie was supposed to work for six days at the Christie's auction house, but these stretched into six years, during which she tried to track down what had happened to thousands of works and particularly to their owners. She was confronted with hundreds of crates that were sealed and numbered during the 1940s by the Nazis. "Round yellow stickers signified that this was Jewish property," says Lillie. "I realized that I was facing very important material that no one had yet studied." Her research also led to a book, "Was Einmal War" ("What Once Was," Czernin Verlag, 2003), of 1,440 pages in which there is documentation of 148 major collections. Nine years ago, when she came to the monuments office in the Hofburg, she had hoped to find leads to the many works that had been lying in storage for more than 50 years. In an attic that had served officials of Kaiser Franz-Josef she found astonishing documentation. Lillie was surprised by its extent, but mostly she was shocked.

"Over the years the Austrian government claimed there was insufficient documentation to return the property to its owners," she said. "In fact, there was the opposite problem: mountains of documents that no one wanted to check."

Initially she was interested in the Mauerbach collection, but at the Hofburg she found information that was far more comprehensive, mostly thanks to an Austro-Hungarian law from 1923. "Based on that law, which was aimed at preventing art treasures from being taken out of the territory of the empire, in 1938 more than 15,000 requests for special permits to take art collections out of the country were submitted," she explains. "Most of the applicants were Jews, and detailed lists of the works and assessors' estimates were appended to the forms."

The authorities, for their part, took care to observe the law and change it according to need: "Works that were determined to be a part of the national heritage were nationalized and immediately transferred to the main office, and by April, 1938, a law was passed that required all Jewish property to be transferred to the possession of the authorities," says Lillie. "At the monuments office I found thousands of photographs that had been taken by assessors of works, the greater part of which disappeared."

At the end of the 1930s, an additional office was opened in Austria for registering Jewish property - from insurance policies, bank accounts and pensions to art collections. On the basis of this information, new taxes were calculated, among them the famous departure tax that was imposed on those who "abandoned" the homeland, even if to death camps. According to Lillie, "A copy of the property documentation was sent to the customs and to the main auction house in Vienna - the Dorotheum - so that the Jews would not sell their property there."

Black market

In 1938 the black market in Vienna was inundated with works of art: paintings, sculptures, porcelain, antique rugs and furniture. The owners of the collections tried to get any sum they could for their property and prices plummeted. Those who succeeded in getting a permit to take their property out of the country hastened to leave. In most cases the property remained at the sea ports.

"There were those who did not leave instructions as to where to send their property, or who left before the bureaucratic procedure was approved," says Lillie. "In 1939, about 5,000 cartons were left with the shipping companies. An organization that was subordinate to the Gestapo entered the ports and nationalized the property. Some of the works were sold by the Dorotheum."

According to the researcher, even though this huge auction house was a government body until two years ago, she did not succeed in obtaining information there. "At the Dorotheum they say that their archive was destroyed during the war," she says.

Lillie searched through books, catalogs and old newspapers from before the war. Thus, for example, in a design magazine she found a picture of the salon of the home of Georg Tramara, which was photographed in 1927. In the room there is a mixture of sculptures of the crucified Christ, saints, Mary and the infant Jesus and paintings of scenes from the New Testament.

"Tramara, who was a writer and a playwright, came from a very wealthy Jewish family," explains Lillie. "He is an example of the entire community that felt it had been well assimilated into the Christian population. However, his case is rather extreme. Tramara did not confine himself to a collection of works by 19th-century artists, which was the fashion at the time. He took care to prove that he `belonged' with religious Christian works of art."

Tramara fled to Bolivia in 1939 and his collection was nationalized.

It is enough to follow the precise inventory that Lillie presents, for example of the Alphonse and Clarice Rothschild collection comprised of 3,444 works, to understand the extent of the documentation work she has done. The book is arranged by surnames. A chapter is devoted to each collector, the documentation of the collection and its history.

From the pages emerges a comprehensive and interesting picture of a community that at the beginning of the 20th century enjoyed an unprecedentedly positive attitude on the part of the regime. Most of them were the offspring of immigrants who had come to large urban areas from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, newly rich people - industrialists, textile factory owners - who were not interested particularly in Judaica.

"An exception was Otto Pic," says Lillie, "but even he was not interested in Hanukkah menorahs and simply collected metal sculptures, among them menorahs."

Those who did take an interest in Jewish art were content with paintings by Isidor Kaufman or David Cohan. "Most of the collectors in the community wanted to stress their social status," says Lillie, "and therefore they collected what at the time interested the Viennese elite - 19th-century artists, among them Friedrich Amerling or Rudolf von Alt. A minority of them collected masterpieces - for example, by Albrecht Durer, Tintoretto or Rembrandt."

Death camp owners

Lillie is particularly interested in the few collectors who acquired during those years works by Schiele, Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, many of whom "were enthusiastic supporters of those artists." Serena Lederer, who owned "Apres Beethoven" with her husband, had two sisters like that.

"The one was Jenny Steiner, whose apartment was full of works by Klimt," explains Lillie. "Steiner fled from Austria to New York, but the whereabouts of Klimt's painting `Water Snake II,' which she owned before the war, is still unknown. Another sister was Irinka Munk. Her daughter, Rhea, committed suicide young and Klimt painted her portrait lying dead on her bed. Does anyone know what happened to the painting? Irinka Munk was murdered at a death camp in 1942."

Lillie concentrated at first on documenting the works of art, but quickly joined in the establishment of the office that the community opened for needy Holocaust survivors. "At the auction, which was held at the end of 1996, a thousand items were sold for more than $10,000," she says, noting that part of the money was distributed to about 5,000 needy survivors and the remainder was divided among Jewish organizations in Austria and Israel.

In light of the information she has gathered during recent years, Lillie sounds a bit hesitant about this distribution process: "In 1995 it seemed to everyone that this was the right thing to do, but that's on the assumption that the government had done everything it could to return the property to its owners. Today we know this is not the case, but now the legal possibilities at the disposal of the legal heirs to the works for the Mauerbach collection are few."

This is not the case with respect to other collections and especially with works that have gone to Austrian museums.

In Lillie's book there is the painting, "The Three Kings of the Orient," by Leopold Kuppelweiser. It was nationalized from the Blauhorn family in 1939 and a year later was sold to the Belvedere Museum by a bailiff. To this day the painting is in the collection of the museum, which claims that it purchased it via legitimate means.

This also happened to Kokoschka's important work "The Leopard," from the collection of Hugo and Melvin Blitz. The painting was nationalized in 1941 and over the years was sold by the Dorotheum and an auction house in London, until it came to the Belvedere Museum in 1980.

An unusual story is connected to Otto Kallir, who owned an art gallery in Vienna before the war. "Kallir went to New York and opened an art gallery there," Lillie says. "He succeeded in getting his collection out, for example - works by Schiele. Kallir knew people, who continued the bureaucratic procedures at the port even after he fled."

Most of Artur Lurie's collection was also taken out of Austria, apart from six items, which were documented in 1938 and located by Lillie before the auction. Among the objects were woodcarvings on which there are scenes of Jesus at Gethsemane and Jesus carrying the cross. Lurie departed on a ship that was on its way to the United States. A torpedo fired from a German warship sank the boat with 1,100 passengers on deck. The fate of the works that were allowed to leave Austria - among them a painting by Breughel - is unknown.

Such works intrigue Lillie. Another such is the picture "Mary and Jesus," which was painted in tempera on wood and is attributed to Jacobello del Fiore. Baby Jesus is depicted in it holding a pomegranate in his hand. Stefan Ushpiz, the owner of the painting, was sent to the Thereisenstadt camp. He was liberated from the camp in May, 1945, but died seven months later. The work was photographed in 1943 at the monuments office, but since then there has been no trace of it.
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