Austrian culture minister calls for investigation into Leopold collection

The Art Newspaper 1 May 2008
By Martha Lufkin

Gallery faces claims that it is holding Nazi-looted art 

BOSTON. The Austrian minister of culture, responding to allegations that the Leopold Foundation in Vienna is holding Nazi-looted art, says she wants “clear rules” for restitution questions at the Leopold, and called for “clarity” on the provenance of the gallery’s art. “The debate over the past few weeks is compromising the reputation of the Republic of Austria, and that of the Stiftung Leopold,” Culture Minister Claudia Schmied said on 26 March.

There was uproar in February over allegations by Austria’s Green Party and the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), Austria’s main Jewish legal body, that the Leopold was holding and displaying Nazi-looted art. Four paintings and four drawings by Egon Schiele, a painting by Albin Egger-Lienz and two by Anton Romakos were allegedly looted from their owners by the Nazis. Dr Rudolph Leopold, who amassed the foundation’s collection, says that the art was lawfully acquired.

Ms Schmied says that she has set up a taskforce to devise proposals in response to a legal opinion by Austrian constitutional law expert Walter Berka, which opened the possibility that restitution requirements for Nazi-looted art could be applied to the Leopold along the lines now required for federal museums. While the Leopold Foundation is privately owned, the government paid for its building, subsidises it, and gave it the funds to purchase Dr Leopold’s art collection.

In March, the IKG released a legal opinion it had commissioned by Professor Georg Graf, which concludes that 11 works at the Leopold were confiscated from their original owners under the Nazi regime. The opinion concludes that Rudolph Leopold “knew, or must have known, that these works of art were originally owned by persons who had been persecuted by the Nazis”, and that he must have considered the possibility that the owners had been dispossessed of their art. If Austria’s Art Restitution Act were extended to apply to the Leopold, the foundation would have to return the 11 works, Professor Graf says.

Ms Schmied says the Leopold would open itself up to a comprehensive independent provenance examination following government criteria, and that two government-paid workers would begin to research the Leopold’s entire inventory in a two-year examination process. Research priority would be given to the works identified in the recent public debate, she says.

Ms Schmied also outlined a plan of action to open the door to further Austrian government restitution of Nazi-looted art through changes to the Art Restitution Act. Claims would be allowed for art now in Austria that was expropriated from 1933-45 throughout the entire area of influence of the Third Reich, not just Austria, and heirs would be determined under Austrian inheritance law, avoiding the need for an inheritance analysis under international law.

In a statement dated 13 March, the Leopold said that it was investigating Professor Graf’s report.
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