Family gets back looted Munch masterpiece after 53-year battle

The Guardian 9 November 2006
Charlotte Higgins

A masterpiece by Edvard Munch, looted by Nazis during the second world war, has been returned to the heir of composer Gustav Mahler after a tussle with the Austrian government that has lasted more than half a century.

The Austrian culture minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, last night announced that the claim of Mahler's family would be accepted, after a meeting of Austria's art restitution commission yesterday afternoon.

The painting, Summer Night on the Beach, was left behind in Vienna by Mahler's wife, Alma Mahler-Werfel, when she fled Austria in 1938 at the time of the Anschluss.

The next year it was looted by her Nazi stepfamily and sold, without her knowledge, to the Austrian Gallery (now the Belvedere), where it has hung ever since. But she always denied it was her stepfamily's to sell and fought for its return until her death in 1964.

Her granddaughter Marina took up the battle and was rewarded yesterday. The commission has confirmed that the sale of the painting to the gallery amounted to a legal injustice.

Ms Mahler was overwhelmed last night. "I feel a wave of peace. I feel terribly moved, for so many reasons. I had prepared myself for disappointment, and had decided that the midterm elections in the USA were anyway much more important," she told the Guardian.

Asked about her plans relating to the work, she said: "I'm just going to look at it, sit and look at it, and let it have its beneficial effect on me."

Asked whether she would hope to make it available for public view, she said: "I probably should, but we must wait and see. I'm just bowled over. Hoping for this to happen and its actually happening are two very different things."

If she decided to sell it, however, she would become a richer woman by several million pounds.

Her Dutch legal counsel, Gert-Jan van den Bergh, said the outcome was "total victory". "The claim was a test of how well the restitution laws functions ... the decision brings hope for pending and possible new cases involving similar restitution claims."

Summer Night on the Beach (1902) has enormous emotional resonance for the Mahler family. Alma, one of the most colourful figures of early 20th-century Vienna, who dallied with Gustav Klimt before marrying Mahler, was given the work in 1916 by her second husband, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.

A gift to commemorate the birth of their child, Manon, the painting became inextricably linked in Alma's mind with the girl's short life: she died of polio aged 18. Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was dedicated to Manon. "No painting has ever touched me in the way this one has," Alma wrote in her autobiography, Mein Leben.

By the late 1930s Alma was married to her third husband, the Jewish writer Franz Werfel. In 1937 she entered a loan agreement with the Austrian Gallery for the safekeeping of her works of art.

After she was forced to leave the country in 1938 her stepfather, the Nazi secessionist painter Carl Moll, and her half-sister Marie Eberstaller removed the painting from the gallery without her approval - then sold it back to the museum. Moll and Eberstaller later entered a suicide pact.

In 1953 Alma filed a claim for the painting, which was upheld by the Austrian restitution commission but was overturned on a technicality.

After a new restitution law was enacted in 1998 her granddaughter made a fresh claim in 1999. The judgment acknowledged the force of the claim "on historical and moral grounds", but threw it out on a technicality, because, it said, the matter had already been dealt with in 1953.

According to Mr van den Bergh: "This 1999 decision - widely criticised and regarded as 'a triumph of bureaucracy' - has now been reversed, thus recognising the fact that the postwar restitution laws provide for an independent basis for restitution claims.

"We need to study the contents of the decision, but understand that it has been based on the latest restitution law from 2001 in which a central role is given to the idea that remaining files leading to cases of 'extreme injustice' need to be resolved. It is for the first time that this criterion has been applied to the restitution of artworks."

The 2001 law gave precedence to resolving incidences of "extreme injustice" above technical considerations.

The loss of the work will leave another gap on the walls of the Belvedere in Vienna. This year Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I was removed from its collection after a six-year battle by the Californian family who claimed it had been looted during the war years.

The fight was resolved only after the Austrian state itself faced trial in the US. The family quickly sold the work to cosmetics billionaire Ronald S Lauder for a rumoured $135m.,,1943033,00.html
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