Dark Figures

Profil (08/11/08)
Dark Figures

Restitution. Vienna’s Leopold Museum continues to dispute being in possession of NS looted art. Now explosive documents have surfaced regarding the source of three pictures by Albin Egger-Lienz.

His works mirrored the personal taste of the Führer. Until his death in November of 1926, Albin Egger-Lienz painted romantic mountain landscapes, farmers eating at midday and men with angular bodies mowing the wheat fields with scythes. In the prologue to the catalogue that accompanied an exhibition by the NS organization, “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) in Berlin, it is said of Egger-Lienz that “no other Austrian artist transcended painting as he did to create and establish Germany’s artistic importance.

The East Tyrolean expressionist’s paintings of the horrors of mass destruction (“Den Namenlosen”) and the suffering of those left behind (“Kriegsfrauen”) had depicted so unsparingly the First World War like no other artist at the time. But the Nazis concentrated on the heavy rural subjects of the vain and easily irritated artist: Egger-Lienz was praised posthumously as the blood-and-earth painter par excellence
The NS carried on unscrupulously. After Hitler’s takeover in 1938, the national socialists began looting private collections of Vienna’s Jews. Paintings were seized or owners were pressured into selling at give-away prices. Written in a letter by the Mayor of Linz in 1939 to Vienna’s Reichsstatthalter, it states: “We have just learned that a certain Therese Neumann owns some Egger-Lienz paintings. Understandably, we have the greatest interest in incorporating these paintings into our holdings.”

The functionaries grabbed up dozens of paintings right from under one’s nose. The Egger-Lienz painting, “Waldinneres” landed in the provincial museum of Carinthia; the “Totentanz” (5th edition, 1809) went to the Museum Schloss Bruck; “Mann und Frau” was given to Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday; and ‘”Die Bergmäher” disappeared into the private collection of Armin Huber, member of NS Vermögensverkehrsstelle (NS Property Transfer Office).

Although after the end of the NS regime, between 1947 to 1954, the former owners and their heirs had the opportunity to submit an application for restitution of the artworks, many of the stolen paintings remained in the possession of the Austrian State, or simply disappeared. However, last February the debate over looted art flared up, gaining momentum. Vienna’s Leopold Museum held an exhibition celebrating the 140th anniversary of Egger-Lienz, which president of the Vienna Jewish Community Ariel Muzicant branded as “probably the largest presentation of looted art in Austria for many years.”

Since then evidence has been multiplying that there must be more Egger-Lizenz paintings in the possession of the Leopold Foundation which are classified as NS looted art. Even Minister of Culture Claudia Schmied demanded that museum director Rudolf Leopold finally shed light on the past in regards to the holdings in his collection. Two independent provenance researchers commissioned by the Ministry are currently sifting through the archives of the museum.

Apparently there is a lot to retrieve. For example, Leopold entered into his provenance database that the picture, “Mittagessen” (2nd Edition, 1910) had been bought from the Viennese art heir Leopold Hauer in the year 1968. But as actual research revealed, Hauer had the 90 x 140 cm oil painting auctioned off back in 1920 at Vienna’s Wawra. Listed as number 31 in the auction catalogue, the “Mittagessen”, according to the Tiroler Anzeiger, brought 90,000 Kronen.

Therefore, if the painting was sold by Hauer in 1920, how could Rudolf Leopold then have purchased it from Hauer in 1968?

This is a question, among many others, that the Foundation was unable to answer. The experts of the house claimed to be on vacation. In the coming weeks, one will try to get some explanation. What needs to be clarified is also the “Bergmäher” (first edition, 1907), which came into the Leopold private collection in 1970. As was verified, the oil painting was confiscated from Therese and Oscar Neumann during NS dictatorship.

Profil searched NS documents which indicate that the art work was in the private collection of Nazi functionary at that time Armin Huber who, as member of the Vermögensverkehrsstelle, (NS Property Transfer Office) was for “Aryzation.” Following the war Huber was brought to trial for “unjustified enrichment,” among other things, but “Die Bergmäher” remained nowhere to be found. Throughout the 1960s there was no trace of the painting, according to the publication of the Egger-Lienz catalogue of artworks (Hammer/Kollreider, 1968).

The Museum’s data as to the provenance of the “Bergmäher” are extremely contradictory. While Huber is still designated as the previous owner in the online database of the Leopold house, the Foundation emphasized during the course of the Egger-Lienz exhibition last February that Huber can in no way be the previous owner of the painting. It is claimed that the “textile industrialist Huber” possessed “another version of the painting,” referring to a new, unpublished information.

Albin Egger-Lienz was actually an obsessive tinkerer. Searching for perfection, the artist painted many of his subjects more than once (see below *). There are twenty-four variations of “The Mittagsessen;” replicas and partial replica have been handed down; also there are many editions of the “Bergmäher.” In the list compiled by the Nazis, it is often not mentioned which edition it concerned– something which makes restitution investigation doubly difficult.

For that reason it led to a trial in 2001. The Canadian Vera Gara, daughter of art collector and salami manufacturer Moric Pick who was murdered in 1945 in a concentration camp, filed a suit again the Leopold Foundation demanding restitution of the painting, “Der Dengler.” Egger-Lienz painted the motif also in oil in 1910 and also in color in 1912. It was disputed before Austria’s highest court whether Garas’ father actually possessed the oil edition which hangs today in Leopold’s exhibition rooms. The Foundation won the trial. Now, however, hints are increasing that Picks’ and Leopold’s painting could be the same painting.

For the first time, Egger-Lienz worked in casein color in 1908. The artist was so attracted to the effects of the material that he painted almost all of his large format paintings in casein until the year 1916. Despite all, it soon turned out that, in terms of preservation of the artworks, it was a fatal mistake. Casein paintings are significantly more fragile than oil paintings – and therefore also clearly worth a lot less.

The difference in value between casein and oil could now help with clarification. The Moric Pick collection was appraised in 1938 by experts from Vienna’s Dorotheum. “Der Dengler,” which is by far the most valuable piece in the collection, was priced at 2,500 Reichsmark. For a casein painting, it was too high a price says Eva Blimlinger, research coordinator of the Austrian Commission for Provenance Research: “The estimated value of 2,500 Reichsmark is a strong indication that it concerns the oil edition.”

The trial surrounding “Der Dengler” could now be rolled out anew. Three weeks ago Vera Gara brought renewed legal action against Leopold. As it was made know by actual investigation (Profil 26/08), Leopold, according to his own statement, unknowingly acquired the oil paintings in 1963 from a former Nazi. In 1946 the seller was convicted on charges of high treason due to having violated the Prohibition Act (constitutional law of 1947 banning Nazi activities) and condemned to two years in prison. That “Der Dengler” was taken from Moric Pick comes close to the truth.

Rudolf Leopold, however, is not obligated to restitute. As a foundation, his museum doesn’t fall under the Art Restitution Law. As long as a collector cannot prove that he knew that it was NS looted art when acquiring a painting, there is no legitimate claim on the part of the heirs – and that includes also “Die Bergmäher” or “Der Dengler.” As for the dark past surrounding the artworks, it changes nothing.

*Albin Egger-Lienz (1868 to 1926) strived for perfection. The East Tyrolean artist painted many of his subjects in numerous variations. He painted a danse macabre six times; as for Die Bergmäher, he left behind 41 partial replicas, studies and final editions. This makes not only the work of the provenance researchers difficult, it also narrows Egger’s value in the art market. Due to his penchant toward repetition, the interest of the buyer is diminished. With “Mittagessen,” from which there are twenty-four editions, replicas and partial replicas, the price ranges from 67,500 euros (Karl & Faber, 1984) to 526,721 euros (Galerie Hassfurther, 2006).