International Herald Tribune 24 October 2006
VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- Holocaust survivors and their heirs now have a powerful new tool to look for art and other belongings looted by the Nazis in Austria.
It's an online database of thousands of objects — such as paintings, books, medals, photographs, furniture, jewelry, sculptures — that may have been expropriated between 1938 and 1945, when the Alpine country was a part of Nazi Germany.
The items are now in museums and collections owned by the federal government or the city of Vienna. The origin of most are still in question and it remains to be determined if they were in fact looted.
The database — launched this month and accessible at http://www.kunstrestitution.at
— was put together by the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism in cooperation with museums and special commissions that have been tasked with tracing the origins of artwork obtained during the Nazi era.
The fund is required by law to auction off items for which no owners or heirs are found and distribute the proceeds to Nazi victims. No deadline has yet been set for processing claims.
Descriptions of about 7,500 objects have been entered into the database so far and by year's end it will probably balloon to about 10,000, with more to be added as research results come in, project leader Michael R. Seidinger said.
Specifics about each item are accompanied by a digital photograph. But to date only some 500 pictures have been uploaded, Seidinger said.
"It's definitely a work in progress," he added.
Such initiatives are not new. Germany launched http://www.lostart.de in 2000 to help Holocaust survivors track down stolen art. In Britain, auction houses, art trade associations, insurance companies and art researchers collaborated in 1991 to establish http://www.artloss.com to register and recover stolen art, the majority from the Holocaust. And the London-based Central Registry operates https://www.lootedart.com. The Czech Republic also displays museum objects formerly owned by Czech Jews online at http://www.restitution-art.cz
and has extended the deadline for claims until the end of the year.
However, Hannah Lessing, the Fund's secretary-general, claims Austria is the first to have developed an online database of "such complexity."
Seidinger said users could get access to preliminary research results that would be updated regularly, adding the database was created after extensive negotiations between representatives of the Fund, museums, commissions and Vienna's Jewish community.
Earlier this year, Austria handed over five painting by Gustav Klimt to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles and other family members following a seven-year legal battle. An arbitration court had ruled that they were improperly seized when the Nazis took over the country.
Austria's decision to give up those artworks, which had been displayed for decades, represents the costliest concession since it began returning art looted by the Nazis.
It's unlikely that anything so valuable is included in the database, but there are undoubtedly items of considerable interest listed in the database.
One such piece is 17th Century Italian artist Luca Giordano's "Man Eating Fish," currently on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Franz Pichorner, who is part of the museum's management and serves as its main database contact, said it was insured for US$350,000 (euro279,000) the last time it was exhibited abroad in 2001. It was bought at a gallery in Munich, Germany, in 1942.
Pichorner said the museum wanted to be sure it came clean — even if that meant losing prominent pieces. "We don't want any looted art," he said.
There might also be other items of value: A search for Klimt and Egon Schiele got three hits, for example. But Michael Wladika, a researcher at Wien Museum, said the works in the database hadn't been appraised. He said his museum had checked some 24,300 objects and listed about 2,460 for inclusion in the database.
Lessing said the goal was to make sure nothing was sold unnecessarily.
"We want to do all we can to find owners and heirs so that we don't auction off anything that potentially still belongs to someone," said Lessing, who also oversees Austria's General Settlement Fund.
"We hope that people will look through this databank and say, 'I remember seeing this as a child,'" she said.
But Lessing acknowledged that confirming claims could be tricky. "It could potentially be very difficult, but we just have to try," she said.
Ingo Zechner, who heads the Holocaust Victims' Information and Support Center of the Jewish Community Vienna, said his group would help get word out about the database.
"For the Jewish community in Vienna, it's most important that the artworks be returned to their rightful owners. We want the auction to be a last resort," he said.
Zechner stressed the need for a central contact point and said more manpower was needed to ensure requests and questions were dealt with promptly.
"There has to be professional follow-up and assistance," he said. At the moment, people are asked to contact museums directly if they recognize anything.
Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the New York-based Claims Conference, said information was critical to the restitution process.
"As more information becomes accessible, hopefully more families can regain their rightful, valued family possessions that have been kept away from them for more than 60 years," he said in a statement.
In July, the group released a survey that showed many American art museums missed a deadline to report whether their collections contain works that might have been stolen during the Holocaust.
The American Association of Museums operates and maintains http://www.nepip.org
that contains a searchable registry of objects in U.S. museums that changed hands in Europe between 1933 and 1945.
Currently, the Austrian database is only available in German. An English version is expected to be online by next spring.
Associated Press writers Katie Fretland in London, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Karel Janicek and Nadia Rybarova in Prague contributed to this report. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/10/24/europe/EU_GEN_Austria_Looted_Art_Database.php