Reckoning with the Past: Nazi-Looted Art Restitution in Austria

Kathleen Walsh

In 2015, the Austrian Commission for Provenance Research announced that a painting by the famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt had been restituted to the wrong family. The initial research confused two Klimt paintings that Nazis stole from Jewish families during World War II: “Apple Tree II” and “Roses Under the Trees.” While the heirs of Nora Stiasny–an Austrian Jewish art collector killed in the Belzec death camp in 1942–were eventually proven to be the true owners of “Roses,” Austria’s Art Restitution Board incorrectly gave them “Apple Tree II” in 2001. In 2018, France announced the transfer of “Roses” from its national collection to the Stiasny heirs. But, Austrian authorities have yet to recommend the restitution of “Apple Tree II” to its original owners, the Jewish Austrian Lederer Family. For the Lederers, who have retrieved a number of Nazi-stolen artworks, their claims of ownership over “Apple Tree II” represent yet another protracted struggle to find overdue justice through the retrieval of stolen masterpieces. 

This case reveals the complicated nature of Nazi-stolen art restitution, even in a country like Austria, which uniquely has legal processes in place to deal with such issues. While Austria has undertaken restitution cases for the past two decades, more work is still left to be done in the return of stolen property and in the contemporary historical analysis of this process, both of which would benefit from a collective archive of these efforts in Austria.

Even before WWII started, the Nazis were plundering Europe for art. They deemed some art “degenerate” and sold it for foreign money, while other pieces were taken for the personal collections of Nazis or the planned Führermuseum in Linz. After the Anschluss on March 13, 1938– in which the Nazis annexed Austria to Germany–Hitler ordered the looting of Austrian Jewish collections on a scale which, as historian Lynn Nicholas described, “went far beyond anything which had thus far taken place in Germany.” Nazis confiscated the collections of prominent Jewish citizens, plundered collections left behind by those who fled, and forced those who remained to register their property for later theft. Everyday Austrians, such as art dealers or neighbors, contributed to this looting as well. The Nazis allowed some Austrian Jews to leave the country, but only through the purchase of exit visas by “selling” their possessions. 

After the war, Austria passed art restitution laws, but restitution efforts did not begin in earnest until the 1990s. This period in Austrian history coincided with an increased recognition of Austria’s complicity in the German war effort and the deterioration of the Austrian “victim myth.”  This deterioration was in no small part due to the Waldheim Affair of 1986:

Deemed the Nazis’ first victim by the Allies in the 1943 Moscow Declaration, Austria held onto an identity of WWII victimhood for nearly fifty years. In doing so, the country was able to evade culpability in the rise of the Nazism and paper over the complicity of many Austrians in Nazi crimes. In the late 1980s, investigative journalists revealed that Austrian President Kurt Waldheim had lied about his role in the war and knew more about Nazis’ actions than he had previously admitted. The Waldheim Affair, along with a new generation of Austrian historians who questioned the victim myth narrative, thrust the question of Austrian complicity onto the international stage. This culminated in the Austrian state’s increased recognition of its Nazi history and a commitment to rectifying past injustices. Art restitution became a way for the country to concretely confront its past.

In December 1998, Austria joined 43 other world governments in signing the “Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.” These non-binding principles provided international guidelines for the restitution of stolen art. The document calls on museums and collections to open their archives so that provenance research can be done with the goal of a “just and fair” solution. That same month, Austria turned the sentiments of these principles into its federal restitution law. This law stipulates that items that became State property under Nazism, that had not been returned despite earlier restitution claims, and that had become State property due to export bans were all eligible for restitution. Those without clear provenance were to be given by the holding institution to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. The institution would buy the items back, and the money would go towards the National Fund’s efforts to support victims of Nazism. 

Through this law, Austria also established the Commission for Provenance Research. The commission’s advisory board meets multiple times a year to decide on restitution claims and post those decisions online. This online archive, however, is not easily accessible for the average curious reader. In order to understand the background and outcome of each of these individual cases, one has to wade through the commission’s website and scour long decisions. While digital access to these decisions is helpful, it is difficult to navigate for historians and future claimants.

Despite Austria’s federal process for Nazi-stolen property restitution, these claims are not easily solved and do not always result in the return of property. Case circumstances vary considerably, and each one requires extensive individual research. The commission frequently decides that a case does not meet the criteria of the restitution law, often ruling that the items in question were willingly left behind or pointing to a lack of definitive proof of an artwork’s original provenance. In the cases of both the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” and the “Beethoven Frieze,” owned by the Bloch-Bauer family and Lederer family respectively, cultural significance played a major role in the restitution efforts and the commission’s findings. Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” is colloquially known as the “Mona Lisa of Austria” or the “Woman in Gold.” His “Beethoven Frieze” is also a classic example of fin-de-siècle Austrian art. The restitutions of both of these Klimt pieces were controversial due to their importance to Austrian cultural heritage and their possible departure from Austria. After failing to be granted restitution by the commission, the heirs of the portrait filed a suit through American courts and were successful in proving that it never belonged to the Belvedere, where it was on display. Export bans on cultural heritage, however, prevented the heirs of the “Beethoven Frieze” from taking it out of Austria. The heirs sold the frieze in the 1970s. However, in 2013, they claimed that this constituted a “forced sale,” completed under the belief that the frieze could never leave Austria. The commission denied this request by arguing that the application for an export license was not close enough in time to the sale. 

Imperfections and failures in the process do not mean, however, that the process should end. Rather, these complications show that further effort must be made to confirm that all art is correctly restituted and that these families can receive some level of justice. Some are calling for a limit or end to restitution efforts in places such as Poland and Austria, making a focus on these restitution cases even more urgent. Some families have been working since the 1940s to get their art, while others have just been made aware of the process. Cases are often amended as more information is discovered and as the commission continues to meet. Access to information about the process is not just important for historians considering how Austria has worked to reckon with the past through art restitution, but also for the families of victims who may have still yet unknown claims. 

Provenance research has created new archives of information, which now belong in a collection with the property in question and related restitution decisions. An all-encompassing archive of this nature does not exist as of yet, but one would aid in the analysis of the restitution efforts, revealing more about Austria’s attempts to reckon with its past after the collapse of the victim myth. By having the cases organized with the research and the art itself, one can see the full narrative of restitution efforts in Austria, instead of separated by museum or isolated by case. A collection of this nature would not only help the writing of the contemporary history of art restitution in Austria and its post-victim myth era, but also provide examples to future claimants and display the need for continued efforts to return these pieces to their rightful owners. Nearing the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust, which some have suggested should be the natural end to restitution efforts, it is necessary that historians and activists continue this important work and collect it all together for future use. 

Image: On the left, “Apple Tree II,” and right, “Roses Under the Trees” by Gustav Klimt

Kathleen Walsh is an M.A. candidate at Georgetown studying Global, International, and Comparative History. Her research interests include the Habsburg monarchy and post-World War II Austria, as well as memory and identity.

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