Restitution And Remorse

The fate of Nazi art still writes headlines; With the Vermeer, Austria may prevail.

News | Natascha Eichinger | October 2009

The Art of Painting by the world-renowned 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer hangs serenely, where it has hung for 63 years, in the grand Picture Galleries of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. However it may not be there much longer, if the Austrian courts uphold a restitution claim of the family who had owned it for 130 years until they were forced to sell it to the Nazis to buy their freedom.

It stands in the spotlight of rekindled debates on the problem of restitution that continue to rivet the Austrian art scene.  The question: Is a forced sale really a sale? And what kind of duress should constitute force under the law?

A year ago, Vienna’s Leopold Museum was forced to restore Egon Schiele’s Wally and Selbstbildnis mit roten Haaren und gestreiften Ärmel-schonern to the descendents of the Jewish owners from whom they had been confiscated by the Nazis. Another two years earlier, the Belvedere Museum restored five stolen paintings by Gustav Klimt to family Altman, descendents of Jews who died in the Holocaust. One was the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, valued at €100 million, that was resold at the record price of $135 million.

Now with Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, it is the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s turn. Unlike former restitution cases, however, this one is not cut and dry.

The ball got rolling on Aug. 31, when the Czernin family requested the return of the Vermeer masterpiece. The painting in question had been in the family’s possession since 1813 and had been sold by Jaromir Czernin to Adolf Hitler in 1940, for the planned Führermuseum collection in Linz. The significant point here is that the painting had been sold to, not looted by, the Nazis and does not meet the standards of most contemporary restitution claims, according to art historian Birgit Schwarz, author of Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst, in an interview with The Vienna Review. "It is therefore questionable whether this is at all a case of resitution" said Schwarz.

In addition, Jaromir Czernin had received a fitting and mutually approved price for the painting, according to documentation of previous post-war attempts by the family to reclaim it.

"It received by far the highest price Hitler ever paid for a painting, at then 1.65 million Reichsmark," said Schwarz.

The family, however, believes it still has a right to the painting. Descendents of Jaromir Czernin base their claims on the argument that the sale had been executed under duress. Czernin’s wife had some Jewish heritage and thus he may have felt forced to transact the Vermeer sale.

"(Jaromir) Czernin had no choice," said Czernin family lawyer Andreas Theiss, in an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard. "He had to sell in order to guarantee his family’s safety."

In spite of the undoubted injustices that were endured by many under the Nazi regime, in this case the relevance is arguable. Before the sale took place in 1940, Jaromir Czernin had already been looking for a suitable buyer.

"The Czernin Family wanted to sell the painting all along," Schwarz explained. They had attempted to sell the painting on the international market, first in the United States and after the Anschluss in 1938 in Germany, where they would attract higher bidders, but the rigid conditions of the Ausführverbotsgesetz (the Law Forbidding the Export of Cultural Artifacts) prevented the painting from being sold to other countries.

"In 1940, Hitler made an offer at a sufficiently high price," Schwarz said, "and more importantly it provided that it would remain in Austria, thereby avoiding conflicts with Austrian sentiment. It was the ideal compromise that the Czernin Family had been hoping for."

To compensate the family for their allegedly forced sale, Theiss proposes that they should be paid once again at the painting’s current market value.

"I would think it would be best for the Republic [of Austria] to buy the painting for a proper sum, so that it stays where it is now," said Theiss to Der Standard. The Art of Painting is one of Austria’s most valuable paintings, one which Austrian art dealer Roman Herzig estimates to be worth €150 to 200 million. The case is still undecided.

Whatever the outcome, the Vermeer case draws attention to the unresolved nature of this problem with Austrian art generally.

"Restitution only became of national importance in recent years," said Andrea Jungmann, Director and restitution expert at the Vienna branch of the London-based auction house Sotheby’s. "It was [only] in 1998 that we established a research department for restitution."

Within the last decade, Austria has officially committed itself to addressing this moral dimension in art, an issue that had previously been completely neglected. In 1995, the first national law was passed on so-called "Aryanized" art, followed shortly by another in 1998 that initiated inquiries into the origins of works of museums and collections.

In relation to the other European countries, Austria is relatively advanced in its efforts to return stolen art to their rightful owners.

"Austria is one of the only countries that has thoroughly addressed this problem by law," Jungmann said.

"In Germany and France, such laws don’t exist, or are at least not as clearly put as Austria’s laws."

The Austrian government has an official commission in charge of evaluating restitution claims.

If a case is rejected, it can always be resubmitted for the commission to review.

Furthermore, every museum in Austria has a staff person responsible for researching the origins of art pieces in their possession.

"In Germany and France this is not being done," Jungmann explained, judging that Austria’s restitution management "is quite good, and a rare example in Europe."

Even though the laws may be in place, their effectiveness is still unproven. According to Dr. Ariel Muzikant, President of the Israeli Cultural Society of Vienna, as of last year only somewhere between 8% to 14% of all art confiscated by the Third Reich had been restored to the legitimate owners. Many works remain difficult to locate, as the majority still remain in private collections. Publicly displayed works, he feels, deserve greater scrutiny.

"Restitution cases will probably lessen over the years but it won’t be any time soon," Jungmann said. "Right now we see it becoming more common rather than less." It will take 20-30 years, she said, – when far more art has been returned and the descendents of the wronged die out – for claims to subside.

As of now, the legacy of the Third Reich hangs over Austrian museums like a Damocles sword, and will remain so until the true ownership of many great artworks is finally resolved.

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