The dispute over a number of works of art in Vienna's Leopold collection that were stolen by the Nazis reveals the extent to which art institutions are trying to avoid returning looted art. Many museums and private collectors continue to hold onto cultural assets that were confiscated from their Jewish owners after 1933.
Albin Egger-Lienz's "The Mountain Mowers" (1907) is one of the works of art in the Leopold Museum that have proved controversial.
The man is Rudolph Leopold. He says that he has an important appointment and asks us to be patient. The interview, he says, which will also include a photographer, requires a prior beard-trimming by the barber around the corner.
Three-quarters of an hour later, the 83-year-old Leopold appears in the living room of the labyrinthine house and sits down on a rustic chair. Dark oil paintings, including one by Dutch painter Roelant Savery, painted in 1606, adorn the walls.
His salt-and-pepper beard properly trimmed, the man now seems ready to spar, almost as if he had used the session with the barber to prepare himself, both physically and mentally, for a tough battle.
Leopold, Austria's best-known art collector, is in fact fighting for his reputation and that of the sand-colored temple to art in downtown Vienna named after him, the Leopold Museum.
While it has long been suspected that the museum was home to stolen art, discussion of the issue has been especially heated of late. The stolen art in question consists of works that Jewish owners were forced to relinquish during the Nazi era.
Leopold, a native of Vienna, has collected an impressive 5,500 works of art over the course of several decades. It is an achievement, he says proudly, that requires "a natural talent." A medical doctor and ophthalmologist, Leopold makes no secret of his faith in his skills as a collector. He stresses that he is known and respected internationally as one of the "leading art experts on paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries."
The works of Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who died in 1918 when he was only 28, and whose extensive body of work centers around awkward and often almost pornographic nudes of women and girls -- it is these works for which, he says, that he, Leopold, helped develop an international reputation with a 1955 exhibition in Amsterdam.
There is no doubt that Leopold sought to achieve great things for Austrian art, and that he was successful in some respects. For Schiele lovers, his museum, with its unprecedented collection of the expressionist painter's works, is the foremost of its kind worldwide.
But now the government-subsidized museum is on the verge of becoming a national blemish. The chairman of the Israelite Cultural Community of Vienna, Ariel Muzicant, has even called for the museum to be shut down until certain issues have been resolved. In addition, the Jewish group recently published a report on what it considers amoral works in the Leopold collection.
Ironically, in the same year in which Austria is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss, its annexation to Nazi Germany, with a host of events, the art world reveals how sensitive chapters from this past still remain unresolved today. And the allegations are indeed serious.
The Leopold Museum Private Foundation, established in 1994, is at the center of the controversy. The Austrian state, which bought Leopold's collection for €160 million ($253 million), owns 50 percent of the foundation. Despite its public funding, Leopold's museum is considered a private institution. It is a construct that also shields the museum against claims for restitution, because such claims are only effective when filed against government-owned institutions.
The debate focuses, on the one hand, on paintings in the current special exhibition of the works of Austrian historical painter Albin Egger-Lienz (1868 to 1926), who is not very well known but was once admired by the Nazis. The provenances of at least 15 of the paintings, including several works on loan from smaller Austrian provincial museums, are considered dubious. As are two paintings aquired by Leopold, "Forest Scene" and "The Mountain Mowers," as well as a sketch for the painting "After the Armistice."
There are other paintings in the museum's collection with dark histories. According to experts, they include several works by Egon Schiele and another Austrian painter, Anton Romako (1832 to 1889):
However, experts also say that detailed research would certainly uncover more stolen art.
There are dramatic stories behind every picture. Schiele's painting "Houses by the Seaside" was originally owned by Jenny Steiner, a Jewish collector. After the Nazis came to power, she fled to Brazil and then to the United States. She was forced to leave a fortune in art behind in her Vienna apartment. As in hundreds of thousands of other cases, the Nazi Property Transfer Office then seized the works.
But the question is how much of this did Leopold know when he purchased his paintings. Was he oblivious, as he claims? Or was there the occasional case in which his passion and love of painting prevailed over his better judgment?
A list of Schiele works published in 1930 identifies Jenny Steiner as the owner of "Houses by the Seaside." Leopold acquired the large work personally at an auction.
And then there is Schiele's black chalk drawing "Woman in Underwear," from the collection of Heinrich Rieger. Rieger, a Jewish dentist from Vienna, was murdered at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in October 1942. About six months later, the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper announced the confiscation of his assets. The Leopold Museum's provenance database makes no mention of the fact that the painting belonged to Rieger.
'The Spirit in Musems Has not Been De-Nazified'
Critics have long seen Leopold as an obsessed man who could be ruthless when it came to his paintings. It is rumored, among industry insiders, that the enterprising art lover acquired his valuable paintings from their clueless owners for next to nothing, and that he smuggled his priceless plunder across borders in a worn suitcase filled with old clothes.
The wiry old man rejects these accusations. They want to ruin my life's work and personally discredit me, he says angrily, pounding his hand on a rustic wooden table. The charges, he says, are nothing but "lies." "There is not a single painting," says Leopold, "that I did not acquire legally. I always acted in the best of faith."
The Israelite Cultural Community, in particular, has a low opinion of such claims, and it has called on the Republic of Austria to take action. The country, the group insists, has already forced the victims of Nazi terror to spend decades struggling to regain their property.
Austria's unfortunate approach to questions of restitution in the recent past is reflected in the undignified tug-of-war over five world-famous paintings by painter Gustav Klimt (1862 to 1918) from Austria's Belvedere Gallery. After a prolonged legal battle, the gallery was ordered to return the paintings to the niece of the former owner in 2006.
The elderly heiress sold the most famous work, the portrait titled "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," to New York collector Ronald Lauder. He paid $135 million (€86 million) for the work, making it the world's most expensive painting at the time, and he now faces critics who say that his only motivation for supporting the pursuit of stolen art for years has been to gain access to museum-quality masterpieces.
Austria enacted a restitution law in 1998 to regulate these sensitive issues, and an amendment of the law is already expected for this summer. However, critics, like Viennese victims' attorney Alfred Noll, complain that the law has and will continue to have many loopholes, and that it turns every case of restitution into a "pure act of mercy" because it does not include language defining the victims' valid legal claims.
Leading art collector Rudolf Leopold.
That, Leopold rages, would be tantamount to "expropriation." For decades, he complains, no one was interested in his paintings, and it was only after prices increased by up to 20,000 percent that there was suddenly such great interest in restitution. He is quick to name an example. For his first Schiele, the sketch for the painting "Dead City," he says that he paid only 2,200 Austrian schillings, or €160 ($253), in 1950. The sketch is worth about €300,000 ($474,000) today, says Leopold.
Leopold's paintings are only a handful of tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of works of art worldwide that ought to elicit moral qualms in their current owners. But many art lovers and museum directors are apparently as unreasonable as ever.
In Germany, but also in many other countries, the issue of stolen art was taboo for decades. Although the Western allies returned some of the art stolen by the Nazis shortly after the end of World War II, their actions were followed by an uneasy silence in the German art world.
"The spirit in museums simply has not been de-Nazified yet," says Clemens Toussaint, 47, an art detective of sorts who has been tracking down the property of Jewish families for the past 20 years. According to Toussaint, the magnitude of the Nazis' cultural pilfering has only become clearer in recent years.
It was art collector Leopold who, involuntarily, heightened public awareness of the scope of the problem. In the fall of 1997, he lent Schiele's "Portrait of Wally" and his "Dead City III" to the New York Museum of Modern Art, where prosecutor Robert Morgenthau had the paintings confiscated in January 1998. "Dead City" was released, but "Wally" was not.
Since then, the portrait has been kept in a safe in New York -- and at the center of a court battle in which the heirs of the former Jewish owner are demanding restitution of the work. A new round of hearings is about to take place. The former owner appealed to Leopold in the 1950s, but was unsuccessful.
The scandal that the 1998 confiscation triggered in New York, as well as the ensuing global headlines about so-called Holocaust art, left a deep impression. The silence had been broken. Many museums and private collectors worldwide were suddenly faced with accusations that they still owned stolen art. The scandal even touched Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor, who had once purchased a Van Gogh while ignoring its troubled history.
Time to Put the Issue of Restitution to Rest?
When, in December 1998, at the instigation of a senior government official, a conference was held in Washington on Holocaust-era assets, the public was especially moved by the question of missing art once owned by Jews. It was considered a sensation that the representatives of all 44 countries attending the conference signed an important document that came to be known as the "Washington Conference Principles." These principles define the obligation of nations to address dubious cases within their national institutions and, irrespective of any statute of limitations, to offer fair solutions if necessary.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene" sold at auction for $34 million after being returned to its rightful owner.
There is a lot to discuss. Many works of art were in fact returned to their rightful owners after the Washington conference. Much of this happened in Germany, where many museums parted -- not always voluntarily -- with works that they owned illegally. But it was only the restitution of the Expressionist painting "Berlin Street Scene" by Brücke group painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 to 1938) that developed into a real controversy. The fact that the struggle over the painting was so aggressive suggests that there has been a bizarre shift in attitudes when it comes to restitution. Many people apparently believe that it is time to put the issue of restitution to rest.
The Kirchner painting was long exhibited in Berlin's Brücke Museum. When Anita Halpin, a descendant of the family that had once owned the painting who was living in London, demanded restitution of the work, a clique of art dealers and museum donors questioned the legality of her claim.
There was something of a campaign to their protests. Nevertheless, a special panel of the Berlin parliament ruled that the painting had been legally turned over to Halpin. She has since sold it at auction, for which she was criticized once again.
The work originally belonged to her grandfather, who died in 1931. His widow, Thekla Hess, moved to Switzerland, but her mother remained in Germany. The Gestapo blackmailed Thekla Hess by threatening to harm her mother. Hess was forced to return portions of the family's art collection to Germany, where the Kirchner painting was sold. However, the agreed price was apparently never paid.
The truly scandalous part of the story is that, during the controversy surrounding restitution, the family's former situation was distorted and the tone of the dispute became coarse and often insulting. In general, victims and their lawyers were essentially accused of greedily plundering German museums. "They say the word Holocaust and they are talking about money," wrote Bernd Schultz, the head of Villa Grisebach, a Berlin auction house, in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He was referring to the "unscrupulous, savvy restitution lawyers."
Georg Heuberger, representative of the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany, recalls other offensive comments. "The boundaries of propriety were exceeded," he says. Heuberger considers it especially shameful that the persecution of Thekla Hess and her son Hans was downplayed. "The impression was created that they were doing quite well." Of course, Heuberger adds, there are lawyers who have since specialized in researching such cases. "The museums often make the research difficult. But how else should descendants get the information they need?"
Even if Jewish provenance can be proven, the works that are in private hands today are already virtually out of reach for the victims, because the statute of limitations for claims expired long ago.
In the end, everything is a question of morality. The privately run Kunsthalle Museum in the northern German city of Emden, founded by publisher Henri Nannen, behaved more admirably than officials for the Leopold collection. The Emden museum returned an Expressionist painting to the family of the Jewish lawyer and collector Ismar Littmann who committed suicide under the pressure of persecution and whose art collection was largely confiscated. Nowadays, this is called "confiscation as a result of persecution."
The stories that surface in the context of restitution claims are consistently tragic. Countless collections throughout much of Europe were dissolved in brutal ways, and works by Old Masters, Impressionists and classic Modernists were scattered to the four winds. The Nazis even turned a profit with avant-garde art, which they dismissed as "degenerate," by selling it abroad, often through Switzerland. When the war ended, many works from questionable sources were suddenly placed on the market.
Even today, dealing with the issue of stolen art is astonishingly difficult. Here is an example: After the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944, Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, a Budapest banker and businessman, hid the family collection of paintings, which included works by Velázquez, Renoir and Manet, in one of his factories. SS war criminal Adolf Eichmann tracked down the collection and had many works sent back to Germany. A few remained in Hungarian museums while others were sent there after the war.
Herzog's granddaughter, Martha Nierenberg, now an old woman, lives in New York. She filed and won a lawsuit against the State of Hungary, and yet the works of art owned by her family and still being held in Hungarian museums were not returned.
Now, says art detective Toussaint, the family has asked him to take on the case, but he is concerned that it would be irresponsible on his part, because he already has "enough to do for the next five to 10 years."
If all the countries that vowed, 10 years ago, to bring clarification, transparency and fair solutions to the matter would live up to their promises, the heirs' nerve-wracking struggles would finally be rendered unnecessary.
And Rudolph Leopold's collection would possibly shrink by a handful of paintings.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan