Reuters 17 July 2007
By Boris Groendahl and Alexandra Zawadil
VIENNA (Reuters) - The heirs of two Nazi victims are demanding the Austrian city of Linz return paintings by art nouveau master Gustav Klimt and expressionist Emil Nolde which they say were stolen by the Nazis, their lawyer said.
The latest in a string of Nazi restitution cases in Austria was made public by the heirs' lawyer Alfred Noll after two years of lobbying in private, because he said the Linz city council was dragging its feet and he feared the case was going nowhere.
"The goal is to free the paintings from Linz," Noll told Reuters on Tuesday. "I have tried first to settle the issue directly with those responsible. But this has been going on for two years now and it's going nowhere." Mayor Franz Dobusch said in a statement Linz would step up an investigation into the paintings' ownership. "The city of Linz is not trying to violently defend a picture, but it aims to determine objectively whether there is a case for restituting them," Dobusch said in a statement.
Klimt paintings looted by the Nazis and later reclaimed by the heirs of their original owners have fetched record prices recently. His "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" portrait was sold for a then record $135 million last year.
The Klimt painting in Linz is an unfinished portrait of Ria Munk, the daughter of an Austrian Jewish industrialist. Her family commissioned it after Ria committed suicide in 1911, said Sophie Lillie, an expert on art seized by the Nazis.
Klimt finished the portrait of Ria on her deathbed and was then asked for another showing her alive, Lillie said. He died before he completed the second portrait. Ria's mother Aranka Munk kept only the unfinished work in her holiday villa.
The Nazis seized the painting in 1941 when Aranka Munk was deported to Lodz in what is now Poland, where the Litzmannstadt concentration camp was based. She died soon after.
According to Lillie, Linz first considered acquiring the painting in 1953 from a collection known to include artworks seized by the Nazis, but the city official in charge noted on the file: "Jewish property! Subject to clearance!"
But Linz bought the painting anyway in a second round of purchases from the collection three years later.
Lawyer Noll is representing around a dozen Munk heirs in Europe and the United States. He expected the painting to be sold due to the large number of heirs.
The Nolde painting, dated 1915 and called "May Meadow", was owned by Jewish physician Fred Julius of Hamburg, a major patron of Nolde's "Bruecke" (Bridge) group. The oil painting disappeared en route to his home in exile in Switzerland in 1939, Lillie said. Linz bought it in 1953 from another collector known to trade in artworks seized by the Nazis, she added. Noll's clients for the Nolde painting are two Julius heirs based in Britain.
(Additional reporting by Eva Komarek)