Restitution as a Moral Duty

Der Standard (06/01/2007)

After seven months, the Advisory Council on Art Restitution met today on Friday. Minister of Education, Art and Culture Claudia Schmied announces in an interview with Thomas Trenkler that Clemens Jabloner will assume the chairmanship. She also considers an amendment of the law possible.

Standard:  As to the issue of art restitution, you announced that you wish to send a clear signal. Does this announcement have also concrete implications, apart from wanting to publish the Council’s recommendations?  
Schmied: And its explanations. Furthermore, I intend to observe them.

Standard: Your predecessor also did that.
Schmied: Thirdly, in pointing out that there have been no more meetings held since November 8, 2006, I will make sure that the Council from now on meets together regularly, much like the board of directors’ meetings, once every quarter year. And fourthly, which appears to me to be the most important, is that we will have a new chairman, namely, Clemens Jabloner. He is the President of the Administrative Court of Justice, and due to his work with the Historical Commission, he is well suited for this job. I am really very happy that I succeeded this week in winning his approval.

Standard: In this function, he follows Brigitte Böck?
Schmied: Yes. Brigitte Böck will be retiring from her position as head of the cultural section as of August 1.

Standard: Will there be any additional changes in the Council? Many of the members have served many years; perhaps a refreshing change might be good.
Schmied: Bearing the responsibility of the department I can only appoint one Council member. But I will take up talks with other ministries about their policy regarding assignments. For me the leadership under Clemens Jabloner is a first main step. In other words, we will be more transparent and faster. Moreover, important for me is also  to deal with the people affected in a respectful way.

Standard: There is a representative from the finance procurator sitting on the Advisory Council for Restitution, who is as attorney for the state not necessarily on the side of those applying for restitution, as one has seen, for example, in the case of Bloch-Bauer. The victims or their heirs have no role within the Council. Do you find that o.k.?
Schmied: That is the current legal situation. In my opinion what is important is the stand that is taken, namely, that we as a nation consider restitution a moral duty. Moreover, the victims and their heirs should not be forced into the role of petitioner. If it proves to make sense, then we will amend the law.

Standard: The expert on art restitution, attorney Alfred Noll, criticized the fact that the victims or their heirs have no legal claim, that they are dependent on the mercy of the Republic.  You, yourself, as the minister responsible for restitution, wield the authority to restitute but are not obligated to do so. Is it not time that the law be amended?
Schmied: That’s right, there is no legal claim on paper. I am naturally no expert on questions of restitution, but I can say that I will approach this topic with great care and respect and will consult Clemens Jabloner, who is a highly recognized legal expert, whether amending the law makes sense.

Standard: The law governing restitution is valid only for the Federal museums but not for the Leopold Museum because although the buildings when erected were funded by the state, this is a private foundation. Should also the Leopold Museum be subjected to restitution? And if so, how do you wish to achieve this?
Schmied: The first step is to begin initiating talks, particularly with director Rudolf Leopold, personally. In this case, one also has to consider an amendment of the law. The fact is that the Leopold Museum has been exempted from legal responsibility although the buildings were built with state funding, and the foundation receives annual subsidies.

Standard: The dispute over the painting, “Bildnis Wally” (“Portrait of Wally”) by Egon Schiele, seized in New York and sitting in storage, has been going on since 1998. Litigation costs exceed already millions of euros, and there is no end in sight. Is it right to continue fighting for the painting?
Schmied: I believe it is thoroughly possible to come to an agreement with the claimant outside of court.

Standard: There was no increase in the budget set for provenance research. Isn’t there now even less money available due to inflation than during the times of your predecessor?
Schmied: That’s right. Nonetheless, we’re still able to do research with 400,000 euros. Should we have to do urgent, additional research, I will try, however, to get additional funds. If required, I will see that considerably more funds are included in the budget after 2009.

Standard: Wilfried Seipel, Director General of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, announced that there is no more NS looted art housed in the museum. Are you also of this opinion?
Schmied: The research report which provided the basis for this statement was dated 1999. Today we have to take into consideration sources which at that time were not available. I will see that one doesn’t consider this matter for finished. In my opinion, research has to continue in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of the Art History), as it is being done in other museums.

Standard: The report, compiled by the museum’s archivist, was strongly criticized because seemingly there was a lack of necessary distance. In his publication issued before 1999, Herbert Haupt trivialized the case involving the Rothschild family.  The director general of the National Library assigned, therefore, all provenance research to an independent historian.
Schmied: If alone for the sake of alone for the sake of avoiding the– possibly even unfounded – criticism of a biased depiction it speaks for bringing someone in from the outside. In my opinion that makes sense.

Standard: There is a lot of looted and unidentified property, among them thousands of books in the National Library. Already in 1998 it was decided to hand them over to the National Fund. How long does the government wish to wait?
Schmied: The fundamental point of the matter is that as long as there is only the slightest hint of an owner or heir, we should search for them, and not dismiss them                 for the benefit of the victim associations. One must approach the matter with utmost care. That’s why we are still waiting, even if the report issued by the Austrian National Library has no clue as to the legal owners.

Standard: The gallery owner, John Sailer, suggested founding a national foundation for the purpose of being able to have them repurchased. What is your opinion on this?
Schmied: That’s a good suggestion. And it would be wonderful if they could find sponsors for such a thing. You know my limited budget on art and culture. That’s why it will be better to invest the funds in contemporary art. But perhaps we will succeed in establishing a national association as part of a future program within the government.