Munch painting sought

Los Angeles Times 28 March 2006
Marilyn Henry

The granddaughter of Alma and Gustav Mahler is challenging the Austrian government to return an Edvard Munch painting that was sold when Alma Mahler-Werfel fled the Nazis with her Jewish husband in 1938.

Marina Mahler filed a claim with Austria's official art advisory panel in February to recover the oil, "Summer Night at the Beach" (circa 1902). Alma Mahler-Werfel had loaned it to the Austrian Gallery at Belvedere Castle in Vienna, which subsequently gave the work to her pro-Nazi stepfather, painter Carl Moll. His daughter, Marie Eberstaller, sold it to the museum in April 1940.

In her claim, Mahler argues that Austria breached its 1998 law on Nazi-era art restitution by failing to return her grandmother's painting. She contends that the Austrian museum knew that Mahler-Werfel had to flee the country, that the Munch was on loan and that neither Moll nor Eberstaller was authorized to sell it.

Mahler's claim is a test of how well the art restitution law functions, said Franz-Stefan Meissel, a lawyer and legal historian at the University of Vienna who has investigated hundreds of postwar restitution proceedings. Austria's law is vague and lacks specific procedures governing restitution recommendations, he said, adding that the panel is not "sufficiently independent — most of the members are state employees."

After World War II, Mahler-Werfel, who with her husband, writer Franz Werfel, had found refuge in Los Angeles, claimed the painting under Austria's postwar restitution laws. In April 1953, the Vienna Restitution Commission awarded it to her, but Austria appealed and in June of that year a regional court ruled against her. She was barred from additional legal proceedings on a flawed assumption that the Munch's value was insufficient to meet a threshold for appeals, according to Mahler's attorney, Gert-Jan van den Bergh in Amsterdam.

The museum declined to indicate the current insured value of the painting. Mahler-Werfel, who died in 1964 in New York, was the flamboyant daughter of Viennese painter Jakob Emil Schindler, widow of the composer Mahler and was married to architect Walter Gropius before her marriage to Werfel.

 "My grandmother was very Viennese. Mahler and Gropius and Werfel were all intricately bound up with the cultural heritage. The family is very Austrian and was not treated well by Austria," Marina Mahler said in an interview from Paris.

The Munch was a gift to Mahler-Werfel when her daughter with Gropius, Manon, was born in 1916. Manon died 18 years later. "It was my grandmother's favorite painting. When Manon died, it took on a huge meaning for her," said Mahler, the daughter of the late sculptor Anna Mahler of Beverly Glen. Mahler-Werfel is buried with Manon in Vienna.

Mahler called on Austria's culture minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, to "reach out and make a gesture to heal a wound."In 1998, Austria passed a law permitting the return of artworks from national museums that had been involuntarily lost by their owners after 1938 and not restituted after 1945.

An advisory panel, the Beirat, was formed to review the museums' research and recommend which works should be returned.

In 1999, the panel reviewed research on the Munch and opposed restitution on grounds that the claim had been decided in 1953. "They told me that morally and historically, all their sympathy and the right are with me," Mahler said. "But what's the point of restitution if it isn't about morals? But then they became very bureaucratic and said it had been judged in 1953."

Her claim includes newly discovered correspondence from Mahler-Werfel as well as a legal analysis challenging the 1953 proceedings, prepared by Meissel.

"From a historical point of view and from a legal point of view, it can be shown that the decision of 1953 against Alma Mahler-Werfel was an extremely unjust decision because it was not at all in line with the legal provisions of the time," Meissel said.

Gottfried A. Toman, director at the Austrian Office of State Attorneys, who represents the government in restitution matters, declined to comment on the Mahler claim, saying the issue would be reviewed by the Beirat. The panel's next meeting was scheduled for this week, although it was uncertain whether the Mahler claim would be discussed, he said.

"This advisory board is so political that sometimes they won't make the obvious decision in favor of restitution," said E. Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles attorney who in January won a protracted battle with Austria to recover five Gustav Klimt paintings for the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, led by Maria Altmann of Cheviot Hills. The Klimts will be on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from April 4 through June 30.

Although the Austrian culture minister is not obliged to accept the Beirat's recommendations on the Munch, "up to now Ms. Gehrer always followed the recommendations of the advisory board," Toman said.

Austria has restituted more than 4,000 objects, including paintings, drawings and decorative works, under the 1998 law. However, it also has denied restitution, as in the case of the Klimts. "You can't say that because justice was done in one case it doesn't matter that justice has not been done in another case," Meissel said.

"I hope, as an Austrian citizen, the government will reconsider" the Mahler claim, he said.
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