Restitution of Stolen Art: Despite Efforts It’s Also a "Weak Point"

Austrian Press Agency (APA) (11/18/04)

Washington - As for the topic of restitution of stolen art works during the times of National Socialism, an interim consensus was achieved at a discussion held at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Despite the numerous cases in which art works were returned to the victims of Nazi persecution as well as to their heirs, there are also many weak points, said Sophie Lillie, author of the book, "What Once Was - A Manual of Vienna’s Collection of Seized Art." The law regarding art restitution is an "Enabling Act" that doesn’t legally hold the government responsible. Also, it is often interpreted very "conservatively."

Of the approximately two hundred thousand Jews living in Austria in 1938, only about five thousand families were able to take their property with them abroad, explained the researcher, Ruth Pleyer. Searching for stolen art works and their former owners and heirs has, indeed, proven to be a difficult task; nonetheless, she encourages everyone to register and follow up on their claims. The estimated fair market value of art works that Austria has restituted amounts to about 250 million US Dollars (192 million Euros). When speaking about restitution, it is not the money, however, which is the most important thing but justice, emphasized Pleyer.

Robert Holzbauer, head of the office researching the origins of art works for the Leopold Museum in Vienna, said the results of his investigation are as follows: Until now there have been very few art objects which have presented a "problematic situation." The Leopold Museum has published all of the research results of the research conducted on their origins over the Internet. The Leopold couple, who acquired thousands of works for their private collection, has not, however, had the best talent for organization at their disposal. Finally, it has not been the researchers but rather the museum’s board of directors that made the decisions about restitution.

Michael Franz informed the audience about the German project In a mutual project conducted by the German federal government and the federal states, a survey has been made of cultural objects that disappeared, were displaced, or particularly in the case of Jewish owners, were confiscated during Nazi persecution. Without substantial information, it is impossible to achieve justice, emphasized the attorney.

Nancy Yeide of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., maintained that those in the U.S. were not participants or profiteers of Nazi stolen art. But what happened in Austria with the Mauerbach auction as well as the seizure of two Schiele paintings from the Leopold Collection in 1998 in New York (Bildnis Wally and Tote Stadt III), the American museums should have undertaken a better evaluation of their holdings and issued stricter guidelines on researching the origins of art works. Even the National Gallery, itself, returned a still life by Franz Snyder in 2001.

When discussing the Bloch-Bauer case, a law suit that has been pending for years over the return of six valuable Klimt paintings claimed by the Bloch-Bauer heiress, Maria Altmann, discussion was animated. Although the case contains elements of stolen art, it originally involved, however, a will written in 1923 by Adele Bloch-Bauer, said the Austrian Ambassador to the United States, Eva Nowotny. Ruth Pleyer, however, sees the dispute as a "test case" for the Austrian government. As a displaced person, the heiress of the Bloch-Bauer family, Maria Altmann, feels treated unfairly by Austria, much like other families. Pleyer remained confident that a solution will be found during the lifetime of the eighty-eight year-old claimant.