France to Return Klimt Painting to Rightful Heirs After Nazi-Era Sale

New York Times 15 March 2021
By Aurelien Breeden

The only painting by Gustav Klimt in the country’s national collection will be returned to the family of a Jewish woman who was forced to sell it. She died in the Holocaust.

Roselyne Bachelot, France’s Culture Minister, at an event to announce the restitution of Gustav Klmit’s “Rosebushes Under the Trees,” in Paris on Monday.

PARIS — France will return the only painting by Gustav Klimt in its national collection to the heirs of Nora Stiasny, a Jewish woman who sold it under duress after the Nazis annexed Austria, France’s culture minister announced on Monday.

The minister, Roselyne Bachelot, said it was difficult but necessary for France to part with Klimt’s “Rosebushes Under the Trees,” which she called a “masterpiece.”

“It is the completion of an act of justice,” Bachelot said at a news conference in Paris, standing beside the early-20th-century painting, a lush, green canvas dotted with specks of floral color.

“Rosebushes Under the Trees,” which currently resides at the Musée d’Orsay in the city, was not part of the special inventory of looted artworks returned from Germany to France after World War II ended. Unlike those artworks, which are not fully part of France’s national collections, the Klimt painting, which was bought in 1980, is legally considered the country’s “inalienable” property.

That means Parliament will have to pass a bill authorizing the restitution, which Ms. Bachelot said would be done as soon as possible.

Alfred Noll, an Austrian lawyer representing Stiasny’s heirs, said at the news conference that the family was “very satisfied and very grateful.”

Stiasny was born in 1898 to a Jewish family in Vienna. The painting was passed on to her from her uncle, Viktor Zuckerkandl, a wealthy steel magnate and art collector who had bought “Rosebushes Under the Trees” in 1911.

But after the Nazis annexed Austria, she was forced to sell it in 1938 “for next to nothing” to survive, Bachelot said. Stiasny was deported to Poland in 1942 and died that year, as did her husband and son.

Ruth Pleyer, an Austrian art expert who researched the painting’s provenance and advised Ms. Stiasny’s heirs, said at the news conference that for the family, the restitution was “the equivalent of a miracle.”

Stiasny had been driven out of her home and most of her personal effects were thrown away after her deportation, Pleyer said, leaving few traces.

The man who bought the painting in 1938, a Nazi sympathizer and “so-called friend” who “instigated” the sale, according to Bachelot, kept it until his death in 1960. The French state bought it from an art gallery in 1980 as officials were building up the country’s collection of modern art in the years leading up to the opening of the Musée d’Orsay.

France inquired about the painting’s origins at the time but found no evidence it had been sold under duress, officials stressed on Monday.

“All the necessary verifications had been carried out,” Bachelot said, adding that it was only in recent years that French and Austrian researchers and historians had been able to retrace the painting’s full journey, a process that was “particularly arduous because of the destruction of most proof and the erosion of family memories,” she added.

Laurence des Cars, the Musée d’Orsay’s director, said at the event on Monday that the Austrian ambassador to France first informed the French authorities in July 2018 that the painting had been sold under duress, according to newly discovered documents. Des Cars said that the French authorities immediately started investigating the matter.

In 2019, a new task force was given a broader mandate to search for and return artwork that had been looted or sold under duress during the Nazi occupation, after years of criticism that French efforts had not been proactive enough. Bachelot noted, for instance, that the Louvre was currently reviewing all acquisitions it made between 1933 and 1945.

In 2017 Austria returned another, similar Klimt painting, “Apple Tree II,” to Stiasny’s heirs, but the Austrian authorities later concluded that the restitution had been a mistake. Experts ultimately determined that it was “Rosebushes Under the Trees” — not “Apple Tree II” — that should be returned to Stiasny’s heirs.
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