Klimt $10 Million Work Is Claimed by Holocaust Victim’s Heirs

Bloomberg 27 November 2008
By Catherine Hickley

Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- An Austrian museum may soon lose a Gustav Klimt painting worth at least $10 million that the heirs of a Holocaust victim say was looted from her villa.

The painting is of Ria Munk, who committed suicide in 1911 at the age of 24 because of an unhappy love affair. Her mother, Aranka Munk, asked Klimt to paint her posthumously, which he did, three times. Authorities in Linz have until now said there was no proof that the portrait hanging in the city’s Lentos Museum is the one looted by the Nazis from Munk’s villa in Bad Aussee.

New testimony, from the grandson of the caretaker of the villa, is forcing the city to re-examine the claim by Munk’s heirs. The grandson, who has asked not to be identified to the media, signed a written declaration that the painting he saw in the villa in 1942 as a nine-year-old boy, is the portrait in the Linz museum. Munk’s heirs, represented by Vienna lawyer Alfred Noll, have renewed their demand, initially made in 2005, for the return of the painting.

“The documents have arrived, and we have given them to an expert group to examine,” Ernst Inquart, the executive director of Linz city administration, said in a telephone interview this week. “We have an interest in ensuring that the inquiry goes fast. We hope things will be clearer in a few weeks.”

Austria was forced to relinquish five Klimt paintings in 2006, after a court ordered their return to Maria Altmann of California, a descendant of the Bloch-Bauer family. The works included the 1907 portrait known as “Golden Adele,” which was seized by the Nazis in 1938 and later given to the Belvedere art museum in Vienna. After the restitution, it was bought by Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million for his Neue Galerie in New York.

Troubling Portrait

The first portrait Klimt painted for Aranka Munk was “Ria Munk on Her Deathbed,” a picture the bereaved mother found too troubling, according to Sophie Lillie, a provenance researcher who tracked down the new witness and is working for the heirs. Munk gave that portrait to a sculptor friend, whose heirs sold it after the war. It even found its way into the collection of the singer Barbra Streisand before being sold again in 1999, said Lillie, author of ‘Was Einmal War,’ a handbook of Vienna’s plundered art collections.

A second portrait was later reworked into a painting of a dancer, she said. The third, the picture Lillie said Munk kept, was the unfinished “Portrait of Ria Munk III,” now one of the crown jewels of the Lentos Museum’s collection. It shows the dark- haired, rosy-cheeked young woman with her body in profile, her face turned toward the viewer. Klimt died before completing it.

Death in Poland

Aranka Munk spent her last summer in the villa in 1938. She was forced to sell part of the property to neighbors in 1941, Lillie said. (The Gestapo seized her remaining property in 1942.) After losing her Vienna apartment, Munk and a younger daughter were herded into accommodation specifically for Jews.

The mother was deported to Lodz in Poland in October 1941 and died weeks later. Her daughter was sent to the death camp at Chelmno, where she was murdered in September 1942.

After Munk’s last visit, her caretaker of many years continued to look after the Bad Aussee villa, airing it regularly, making repairs and clearing snow. In a letter, Munk asked him to take special care of the painting of Ria.

By 1939, Munk’s payments to the caretaker dried up. A carpenter who had worked in Munk’s house suggested he should take something from it as payment, and told him that the Klimt portrait was the most valuable item.

Curious to see it, the caretaker went to look, accompanied by his family, including the grandson whose recent testimony has lent new weight to the heirs’ claim for the painting.

‘Laughed’ at Painting

“We stood in front of the painting and laughed in surprise that it should be so valuable,” the grandson said in a declaration signed on Sept. 11, 2008. “We didn’t take it because that would have meant stealing. We wondered for years in the family what happened to the painting.

“On the basis of my memory and the accompanying circumstances I am convinced that it was the portrait of a woman, “Portrait Ria Munk III” by Gustav Klimt, which now hangs in the Lentos Museum in Linz,” he said in his testimony.

The new witness changes the situation, said Stella Rollig, the director of the Lentos Museum. The portrait, whose value the museum says is at least $10 million, is one of three Klimts in its collection.

“We knew that Aranka Munk had a portrait of her daughter in her villa in Bad Aussee, but no one knew what it looked like, or whether it was identical with the painting in the Lentos Museum,” she said. “This new declaration is important, but we are still researching it ourselves. If there is clear proof, then restitution will follow.”

Noll, the Vienna lawyer, said he expects Linz to act quickly in the light of the new evidence to return the painting to the heirs, the descendants of Munk’s sisters, who are scattered around the world, in Vienna, the U.S., the U.K. and Belgium.

Culture Capital

“From January, Linz is European Capital of Culture,” Noll said by telephone from Vienna. “I can’t imagine they want the focus to be on looted art.”

Linz, Hitler’s hometown, was also where the Nazi leader planned to build a massive “Fuehrer Museum” full of masterpieces from across Europe, some of them looted from Jewish owners.

“A lot has happened in art restitution in the past 10 years, but this case shows there is still a lot to be done,” Lillie said. “We are far from finished with the work.”

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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