“Clearly Stolen Art!”

Barbara Petsch

Die Presse (03/11/2008)

Leopold Museum. The Jewish Community (IKG) presents more official reports reflecting expert opinions on “expropriated works of art.” IKG President Ariel Muzicant is demanding that a law be established to settle the matter. Austrian Minister of Education Claudia Schmied promises it.

How much was Rudolf Leopold aware of?  “Is that stolen art or not?” “Will  provenance research conducted by the Leopold Foundation be censured by its executive board?” It was a heated debate on Monday during two press conferences held by the IKG and by the Leopold Foundation.

Georg Graf, University Professor for Civil Law and Philosophy of Law at the University of Salzburg, identified eleven works as so-called “expropriated paintings” in dry legal terms in his official report commissioned by the IKG. It involves Schiele’s painting, entitled “Wally,” part of a collection lent to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ten years ago by the Leopold Museum and put on exhibition, after which it was seized and is still in America. It also involves other works, including Schiele’s “Häuser am Meer,” “Romako’s “Nike mit Kranz,” “Die Quelle,” as well as “Akt eines jungen Mädchens,” Schiele’s „Frau in Unterwäsche, sich links aufstützend,” and ”Die Bergmäher“ by Egger-Lienz and four other Schiele drawings.

Official Report: “Wally” Doesn’t Belong to Leopold
“It can be assumed that, when acquiring these paintings, Rudolf Leopold knew that they were originally owned by people who had been persecuted by the National Socialists,” writes Graf. “Therefore, Leopold had to expect that there was a possibility  it involved paintings which were stolen from their owners.” Should the scope of the 1998 law on art restitution be expanded to to the extent that it includes the paintings still held by the Leopold Stiftung, “the Foundation would be under a legal obligation to restitute,” says Graf. Based upon this point of view, “Wally” doesn’t belong to Leopold, according to Graf. In other words, the painting still belongs to the “heirs of Lea Bondi, who are allowed to demand it be returned by the Foundation based upon claim of ownership.”

Regarding the three Romako paintings, “the possibility that expropriated paintings still belong to the heirs of the original owner is not only a given but a reality,” finds Graf. In terms of the four Schiele drawings, however, strong reasons speak for the fact “that they belong to the Republic of Austria because, based upon Article 22 of the State Treaty, they were purchased by the German Reich.”

“It’s crystal clear,” says IKG President Muzicant: “There’s no need for discussion  about each individual painting. It is clear that the Leopold Collection has an abundance of paintings that can be explicitly considered stolen art.” It is now up to the Republic of Austria to take the next steps.

“It is my political goal to establish a law which, like the law on restitution regarding State museums, applies to the Leopold Collection and clearly governs the Foundation’s matters of restitution,” explains Minister Schmied. “The complexity of legal questions demands excellent preparation and examination.”

Previous to the Graf report, the IKG had presented a report by Salzburg’s constitutional lawy expert Walter Berka, which which provides for the possibility ot  apply the law on art restitution to the Leopold Foundation.

“The Berka report impressed me,” said Clemens Jabloner, President of the Superior Administrative Court and head of the Commission on Art Restitution: “It offers good arguments supporting neither unconstitutionality nor a breach of human rights. In any case, one can expect an amendment. Principally, every piece of art whose provenance remains unclear should be dealt with, like the requirements established by the law on art restitution.” If the Federal Chancellery’s legal office gives the green light, “one can begin working on a law,” says Jabloner. He also believes that even if there are elections, another new federal government will make an amendment to the law on art restitution.

He doesn’t understand IKG’s “zig zag” course, said lawyer Andreas Nödl, board member of the Leopold Foundation. First the IKG speaks about an amendment to the law on art restitution, and now it speaks about legal actions.

How Many Claims Are Still to Come?
Furthermore, Nödl emphasizes that among the altogether 5,500 works of the Leopold Collection, the number of contentious exhibits is in the area of one-tenth-of-a-percent. This,  however, could be the main concern of the 82 year-old collector, Rudolf Leopold: in case he should give in out of ethical reasons, as was discussed at the press conference, more and more new claims will pop up. Nödl didn’t wish to say what the prognosis might be if the Leopold Foundation is included in the law: “We’ll cross over that bridge once we’re there.” The biggest mistake committed by the Graf report is that it restricts itself to the facts presented by the IKG: “Even Leopold, himself, was not questioned.” When everything stands outside of the law, one perverts the course of justice; there is no display of “moral responsibility” when giving things away. The Foundation continues the costly law suit over “Wally.” But a decision is, however, in the offing.