Austria works to return Nazi-stolen art

Advisory panel recommends 6,292 artworks be returned to original owners.

austria holocaust 298 AP (photo credit: )
austria holocaust 298 AP
(photo credit: )
An Austrian advisory panel handling claims for paintings, sculptures and other items looted by the Nazis during World War II has recommended that 6,292 artworks be returned to their original owners, the culture minister said Wednesday. Only about a dozen of the requests received through March 31 have been rejected, said the minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, adding that the government usually follows the panel's recommendations. Austria has been returning hundreds of works to their rightful owners or heirs, most of whom were Jewish, under a 1998 culture property restitution law. Details on most of the artworks and their claimants were not released, but Gehrer said new investigations have been launched in an attempt to clear up murky circumstances surrounding two of the rejected requests. Those cases involve a pair of figurines by Belgian symbolist sculptor George Minne and "Summer Evening at the Beach," a painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The return of the Minne figurines was requested by heirs to Maria Altmann, the California woman who earlier this week regained custody of five Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis stole from her family. Marina Mahler, a granddaughter of the late composer Gustav Mahler, is seeking custody of the Munch. The Minne figurines and the Munch painting are in the possession of Vienna's prestigious Austrian Gallery Belvedere, the same museum that was forced by a court order to return the Klimts to Altmann, who had waged a seven-year legal battle. Gehrer said a Web site would be set up by the end of the year to help owners track down works they claim were confiscated by the Nazi regime. In addition to returning artworks, Austria's government also has begun paying compensation to Nazi victims from a €175 million (US$210 million) fund set up in 2001 and endowed by the federal government, the city of Vienna and Austrian industries. Many of the works being returned to their pre-war owners made their way into state-run museums or art collections under questionable circumstances before, during or just after the war. Austria's first postwar government also effectively confiscated hundreds of paintings from Jewish owners and their heirs, using a 1923 law preventing the export of artworks. The government allowed some Jews to reclaim their artworks and take them out of the country, but forced them to "donate" many others in exchange. Vienna was home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 200,000 before WWII. Today, it numbers about 7,000.