Austrian amnesia over how it treated victims of Nazi looting

The final verdict in a case brought by the heirs of the owner of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze shows the state is still standing in the way of compensating those who had works stolen during the war

by David D'Arcy  |  1 April 2015
Austrian amnesia over how it treated victims of Nazi looting
Gustav Klimt; Beethoven Frieze; 1901-1902; Detail (The Hostile Forces);
Photo: Oliver Ottenschläger;
Gustav Klimt’s celebrated Beethoven Frieze will remain in Vienna, installed on the walls of the Secession Building, the place where it was first shown and where it has been re-displayed since 1986. So decreed the Kunstrückgabebeirat, the Austrian panel which examines the country’s restitution cases, last month. 

The decision was welcomed as good news by much of Austria. Tourists who flock to the monumental 1902 work, which is estimated to be worth $150m to $200m, will register their approval with their feet. But for the heirs of Erich Lederer, the previous owner of the work, who claim he was forced to sell the frieze to Austria because he was barred from exporting it, the ruling is a disappointing conclusion to a bitter legal battle. 

Only new evidence can reopen the case, although a lawyer for one of the heirs threatens the symbolic response of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. For families who lost art in Austria during the Nazi era, the decision to let the frieze remain where it is seems a grimly predictable observance of business as usual.

The claimants had petitioned for the frieze’s return on the basis of a law passed in 2009, which expanded Austria’s guidelines for the restitution of Nazi-looted objects. This decreed that works of art that were sold in Austria under the constraints of an export ban could be returned to owners, who were assumed to have sold those works under duress or for depressed prices. A burdensome provision of the law mandates that decisions in these cases should be all or nothing, in other words, works should be returned or not, with no negotiation and compromise solutions possible.

The claimants had no right to testify in front of the KunstrÜckgabebeirat or to appeal its decision. Under its rules, the panel was not bound to give a reason for its decision, but did provide a lengthy explanation. It ruled against Lederer’s heirs because it was unconvinced that the Austrian government had forbidden, rather than discouraged, the export of the frieze. The understatement echoes Kafka.

The story so far

The disputed frieze was created by Gustav Klimt, then 39, for a Beethoven-themed exhibition at the artist-run Vienna Secession in 1902. The 112-foot-long experiment in translating music into art shows maidens travelling across the canvas guided by a knight, encountering grizzled witches and a grimacing ape, and finally arriving in the realm of love and beauty. 

The work was never intended to be preserved beyond this temporary exhibition. Yet the mural was saved from the wrecking ball when the display closed in 1903 by Carl Reininghaus, a wealthy Jewish brewer who paid for the frieze to be cut into sections and stored in a warehouse. Three years later, Reininghaus sold the frieze to August Lederer, another rich entrepreneur. The Lederers, Hungarian citizens, held the largest private collection of Klimt paintings before the Second World War.

That collection was seized by Nazi officials of the Monuments Office. Austrian museums vied to acquire pieces of it. Many pictures were shown in the Secession building as part of a Nazi-organised exhibition of Klimt’s works in 1943. On 7 May 1945, the day of the Nazi surrender, at least a dozen of Lederer’s Klimts were stored at Schloss Immendorf in Lower Austria. Retreating SS troops commandeered the building and dynamited it after an all-night bacchanal. All the works were destroyed, but the frieze, which had been stored in a castle seized from an Austrian extermination camp victim, survived.

August Lederer’s son Erich, who had been displaced to Switzerland during the war, recovered much of the art that remained behind. Taking it out of Austria was another problem, since the works were restricted by an export ban, which required that owners donate art to compensate the state for any works deemed to be of national importance that they sought to take abroad.

“This Kiss to the Whole World” detail from Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1901-02
When Lederer was not permitted to take the frieze out of the country he tried to sell it to the state, which had no interest in paying for its storage and conservation. Decades went by as Lederer paid to store the four-tonne work and preserve it. Many years later, the Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin observed that Jews trapped in this process were victims of a “second theft.”

Documents from the time show how this state pressure worked. The Monuments Office, which held the frieze for Lederer, proposed to restore it but at his expense. If Lederer lacked the conservation funds, the state planned to take possession. That process was modified in 1970, when the new chancellor, Bruno Kreisky (the first Jew to lead Austria), was alerted to the case and the Austrian state agreed to buy the frieze for about $650,000–less than its fair value and less than Lederer wanted. Erich Lederer agreed to the sale in 1973, and praised the deal.

The conserved frieze was formally placed in the custody of the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, which has loaned it to the Secession Association. Klimt’s work was reinstalled in the basement in 1986 and it has been a windfall for the institution as entry fees to see it provide much of its income.

The way forward

The Lederers’ new claim on the frieze has been extremely sensitive, with angry voices stigmatising the heirs as greedy. This fierce reaction raised questions about Austria’s willingness to come to terms with its past–not simply Nazi-era pillaging and official resistance to restitution in the immediate post-war years, but its actions in the 1970s.

Hanging over the panel’s deliberations was the memory of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts, five paintings from the collection of the industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer that were in the Belvedere Museum when it was seized by the Nazis. An Austrian mediation panel returned them in 2006 to heirs represented by Bloch-Bauer’s niece in California, Maria Altmann. One of those pictures, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was acquired by collector Ronald Lauder reportedly for $135m and now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York. 

Those wounds are still fresh to some in Vienna not least because of the upcoming release of Woman in Gold, the pro-restitution film about the case, starring Helen Mirren, which Austrians will not find flattering. It seems unlikely that Austria wanted the Bloch-Bauer case to happen all over again. In the event, it did not. 

Klimt stays put

The Klimt frieze will stay in Vienna. There is no more urgency to the case, unless one considers it urgent to correct historical amnesia. Proceeds from the sale of Klimt’s Water Snakes II, which was sold through Sotheby’s as part of a restitution settlement to a member of Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family for $112m, are funding a foundation honouring the reputation of Klimt’s first illegitimate son, Gustav Ucicky, a Nazi film propagandist. At the same time, the Leopold Museum is presenting an exhibition devoted to Egon Schiele’s model and companion Wally Neuzil, without mentioning the 13-year dispute over the artist’s 1912 Portrait of Wally, which prompted the Austrian parliament to enact a new restitution law in 1998. The painting was looted by a Nazi dealer, which led to a $19m payout to heirs of its pre-war Jewish owner.

In this atmosphere lies an opportunity to provide the full history of the Beethoven Frieze. On a wall in the basement of the Secession Building, photographs and a timeline track its restoration and reinstallation. But there are no details of an equally essential chronology—Erich Lederer’s role in saving the frieze from neglect; his persecution; the loss of his collection; his efforts to save the frieze again after recovering it in pieces in a storeroom, and the export ban that made Lederer a battered partner when Austria decided to acquire it. 

It’s a grim story, yet a necessary one if the frieze is to be presented in full. This way, Vienna would get to keep its monument while visitors would be offered more than the official myth.

David D’Arcy is the co-producer and co-writer of the film Portrait of Wally, and a correspondent for The Art Newspaper

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