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Story:Murder, or Self Defense?

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     Rinesch asked the Austrian Gallery Belvedere to return the three Klimt paintings that had belonged to Ferdinand but now hung on the gallery’s walls. The museum refused, saying that Adele had left the works to the gallery in her will and that it was the museum that had generously allowed Ferdinand to keep the paintings during his lifetime.

     Museum officials told Rinesch that he could receive export permits to take other works of art out of Austria if Ferdinand’s heirs agreed to relinquish their claims to the Klimt paintings. Without consulting the heirs, Rinesch agreed. He gave the gallery the three Klimt paintings that were already hanging inside it, and he helped the gallery get two Klimt landscapes, which had been in the custody of the Nazi liquidation lawyer, Fuhrer, and the Museum of the City of Vienna.

     If not for a remarkable chain of events half a century later, that would have been the end of the story. 

Unlocking Pandora’s Box

     In January 1998, the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed an exhibition of works by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. The exhibition included two paintings that Nazis had stolen from their prewar Jewish owners. In an unprecedented move, the Manhattan District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, prohibited the museum from returning the paintings to the foundation in Vienna that had lent them.

     Museum directors cried out in protest, claiming that foreign institutions would now be less likely to loan artwork to American museums. But the case had another effect: It turned the world’s attention to the issue of ownership of property looted by the Nazis.

     The United States created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets to report to President Bill Clinton on matters related to Holocaust restitution. The Association of Art Museum Directors established new standards, calling on museums to disclose information about their collections that might help Holocaust survivors or their heirs reclaim property.

     In Austria, Elisabeth Gehrer, the minister for education and culture, invited researchers to search previously closed archives, to show that no stolen art remained in Austria. This move unlocked Pandora’s box.

"Austrian museums still possess hundreds, if not thousands, of art objects stolen by the Nazis."

     An Austrian journalist, Hubertus Czernin, delved into the government’s files and began publishing a series of stories about them. No one could have predicted what he uncovered. “The truth is that Austrian museums still possess hundreds, if not thousands, of art objects stolen by the Nazis,” he wrote, in an article titled “The Austrian Evasion,” which ran in English translation in the June 1998 issue of New York-based ARTnews magazine.

     Czernin went on to explain the after-war “art tax” that the government had slapped on Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Austria, relying on a 1918 law that required citizens to pay export permits when taking certain objects out of the country, had forced Jews to donate some of the art in their collections in exchange for permission to export other pieces. The Bloch-Bauers were not spared this trickery, Czernin reported.

     Czernin also dug up correspondence between Austrian Gallery officials that showed that they knew they were on tenuous ground when it came to their claims of ownership of the Klimt paintings. In 1948, for example, Karl Garzarolli, the director of the Austrian Gallery, expressed concern that the museum had no proof of its right to the paintings. “I find myself in an extremely difficult situation,” Garzarolli wrote to his predecessor. “I cannot understand why, even during the Nazi era, an incontestable declaration of gift in favor of the state was never obtained…. The situation is growing into a sea-snake.”



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