By Martha Lufkin
Institution says restitution laws don’t apply as it is a private gallery
Egon Schiele, Houses on the Lake, 1914
BOSTON. The Leopold Museum in Vienna is holding art that was stolen by Nazis from Jewish owners, according to allegations by Austria’s Green Party and the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), Austria’s main Jewish legal body. After the museum opened an exhibition of work by the Austrian artist Albin Egger-Lienz on 14 February, Wolfgang Zinggl, a member of Austria’s Green Party, issued a statement saying that 14 Nazi-looted works were included in the display. An additional painting not in the show but held in the museum’s permanent collection, Houses on the Lake, 1914, by Egon Schiele, was also alleged to have been stolen by the Nazis from Jewish owner Jenny Steiner.
Leopold Museum director Dr Rudolf Leopold responded that he had not known the provenance of Houses until 1998, when Austrian archives were opened. But according to Erika Jakubovits, executive director of the IKG, Dr Leopold would have known when he bought the work in 1953 that Jenny Steiner was its prior owner. Dr Leopold himself published a catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s work in 1972 which lists Ms Steiner as the former owner of Houses. In 1994 Dr Leopold said in an interview that, since 1950, he had owned and relied on the 1930 Schiele catalogue raisonné by Otto Kallir-Nirenstein, which also names Ms Steiner as the owner of the painting. Ms Steiner’s art losses to the Nazis are broadly known to art restitution experts and the public, Ms Jakubovits told The Art Newspaper.
On 20 February, the Green Party held a press conference saying that Dr Leopold was wrongly holding the paintings. The Leopold issued a press release the next day, saying that when Dr Leopold bought Houses in 1953, he had in fact known that Jenny Steiner was the former owner, but had not known that she was Jewish.
Dr Leopold’s art-buying advisors and friends were deeply involved in Nazi dealings with art looted from Jewish families, Ms Jakubovits told The Art Newspaper, and his leading advisors would have known that Ms Steiner owned Houses and was Jewish, she said.
On 1 February, the IKG gave the Austrian Ministry of Culture a legal opinion by Austrian law professor Walter Berka as to whether Austria’s law requiring restitution of Nazi-looted art could apply to the Leopold Museum. The restitution law applies to federal museums but not private institutions. The Leopold Museum is privately owned, but the government funded its construction, subsidises it, and gave it the funds to purchase Dr Leopold’s collection.
The Minister of Cultural Affairs said it was examining the issue of the Leopold to see if a resolution could be found.
On 10 March, the IKG presented a second legal opinion, by law professor Georg Graf, concluding that 11 paintings in the Leopold’s collection from six different Jewish owners had been looted by the Nazis. All of the art would have to be restituted if the Leopold were subject to the restitution laws, the report says. In a press release dated 13 March, the Leopold said that it was investigating Professor Graf’s report and would issue a statement to various members of the Austrian government.
In response to the claims, Dr Leopold was quoted in the Austrian weekly magazine Falter as saying that “for these people, it’s all about money”.