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Austrian Museum Returns Klimt Portrait to Nazi Victim’s Heirs

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Bloomberg 4 June 2009
By Catherine Hickley

Linz city council today voted to return a Gustav Klimt picture worth about $15 million to the heirs of a Holocaust victim after new evidence indicated that the portrait was looted by the Nazis.

The painting, which hangs in the Austrian city’s Lentos Museum, is of Ria Munk, who committed suicide in 1911 at the age of 24 because of an unhappy love affair. On the basis of new research, Mayor Franz Dobusch recommended in April that the painting be returned to the heirs of Ria Munk’s mother, Aranka, who commissioned the portrait after Ria’s death.

“After today’s official decision and agreement on the method of handover, the portrait of a woman will be handed to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, which represents the heirs,” the city of Linz said in a statement sent today by e-mail. The decision was unanimous, the statement said.

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.

The unfinished “Portrait of Ria Munk III” was Klimt’s third portrait of the young woman and was one of the crown jewels of the Lentos Museum’s collection. It shows the dark- haired, rosy-cheeked Ria with her body in profile, her face turned toward the viewer. Klimt died before completing it.

Caretaker’s Grandson

Linz authorities had previously argued that there was no proof to back up the heirs’ claim that the Lentos portrait was the one seized by the Nazis from Munk’s villa in Bad Aussee.

Last year, they promised to re-examine the claim after the grandson of the villa’s former caretaker signed a written declaration that he had seen the portrait in the house in 1942 as a nine-year-old boy. They concluded in April that the evidence was sufficient to justify restitution.

“Complex research and a report by the Linz historian Michael John finally led to the conclusion that the Gustav Klimt portrait of a woman was very probably of ‘dubious provenance,’” the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, or Jewish Commission for Culture and Education in Vienna, said in the statement. “With this restitution, Linz is responsibly drawing the consequences from the historical facts.”

Klimt Collection

The portrait was one of dozens of Klimt paintings owned by the extended family: Aranka Munk’s sister Serena Lederer owned the largest private collection of Klimt’s works, most of which were destroyed by the Nazis in the final days of World War II.

Aranka Munk spent her last summer in the villa in 1938. She was forced to sell part of the property to neighbors in 1941, according to art researcher Sophie Lillie. 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.

The heirs, descendants of Munk’s sisters who have declined to be identified by name, are scattered around the world -- in Vienna, Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and Belgium.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

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