Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Austria and Fritz Grunbaum's Stolen Schieles at the Albertina Museum

In 1955, Austria signed a treaty with the United States promising to give back all of the property it stole from Jews during the period of Nazi "occupation" of Austria.   Ever since, Austria has treated this obligation largely as a joke, thumbing its nose at Jews who attempted to get their property back.  Only in the 1990's through a combination of class action lawsuits and the actions of the Clinton Administration spearheaded by Amb. Stuart Eizenstat, did Austria instead agree to pay pittances to Jewish persecutees in lieu of giving them their property back.   The sad tale is well told in Eizenstat's book Imperfect Justice.

But the class action settlements did not cover stolen artworks in Austria.  In 1998, in reaction to D.A. Morgenthau's seizure of Egon Schiele's Portrait of Wally and Dead City (Dead City belonged to Fritz Grunbaum), Austria passed an Art Restitution Law that permitted claims to be made against artworks in Austria's federal museum collections.  On April 13, 1999, the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum made claims to the following works by Egon Schiele that were stolen from Grunbaum while he was in the Dachau Concentration Camp:

Egon Schiele, Female Nude Seated on Red Drape, Back View
Sitzender weiblicher Rückenakt mit rotem Rock

Jane Kallir: Egon Schiele, The Complete Works 1998, New York №:1504
Gouache, watercolor, and pencil. Signed and dated, lower right. (48.2 x 31.8 cm).
Gutekunst & Klipstein, Nov. 24, 1955, lot 107 1

Exhibitions: London, 1964, no. 67, ill.; Hamburg, 1981, no. 214, ill.
Inventorylist Albertina: 39.931

Jane Kallier: Egon Schiele, The Complete Works 1998, New York №:1797: Heinrich Rieger; Gutekunst & Klipstein, Bern; Galerie St. Etienne, New York; Rudolf Leopold;

Provenance as per Catalog: "Egon Schiele" Würthle Gallery, Vienna 1925:
"Mutter und Kind", sign Egon Schiele 1915 Sammlung Fritz Grünbaum
Austria never responded to the claims of Fritz Grunbaum's heirs.  From 2000 through 2009, Austria claimed that it was "investigating" the status of the works.  In 2006, Mag. Eva Blimlinger was called in to oversee the investigation together with Mag. Annaliese Schallmeiner.

 Blimlinger is a respected Austrian historian and oversaw the Austrian Historian Commission's report found at http://www.provenienzforschung.gv.at/    The Blimlinger and Schallmeiner Report, which was supposed to have issued in the fall of 2009, never has seen the light of day, apparently the victim of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture.   Why was that report killed and what did it say?
In the summer of 2009, at the Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, Minister Claudia Schmid promised Congressman Wexler that she would investigate the status of the Grunbaum works at the Albertina.  I spoke to Dr. Christophe Bazil and Dr. Thomas Baier, who reassured me that they would investigate the issue and be in contact.   I wrote to them and never got any response.
In February, a client alerted me to a forum to take place in New York on Austrian Restitution.  The program is here.    I was rather shocked that the very Austrian officials who had promised to look into the Grunbaum affair and who did not have the time to answer my communications were to be speaking in New York City.
By failing to return property belonging to Jews, Austria has breached its obligations under the Austrian State Treaty of 1955.  This treaty was a condition of Austria's existence, like our Constitution.  The Allies - Russians, French, British and Americans - pulled out of Austria on the promise that all property would be returned to Jews.   Instead, Austrians continue to live in homes stolen from Jews, operate businesses stolen from Jews, and to buy, sell and enjoy art stolen from Jews.
Since the Allies left Austria, Austria has enacted successively a system of inadequate and insulting postwar laws that failed to restore property to Jews.   To understand Austria's obligations clearly (the treaty is written in plain English), we look to the actual writing. Article 26 of the 1955 Austrian State Treaty states as follows:


1. In so far as such action has not already been taken, Austria undertakes that, in all cases where property, legal rights or interests in Austria have since 13th March, 1938, been subject of forced transfer or measures of sequestration, confiscation or control on account of the racial origin or religion of the owner, the said property shall be returned and the said legal rights and interests shall be restored together with their accessories. Where return or restoration is impossible, compensation shall be granted for losses incurred by reason of such measures to the same extent as is, or may be, given to Austrian nationals generally in respect of war damage.

The full text of the Austria is found here, courtesy Wikipedia.  You will see that there are no "if's" ands or "buts" in the Treaty.  Its language is unconditional and does not depend on enabling legislation.  Indeed, any enabling legislation that fell short of the absolute terms of the Treaty would be unconstitutional in Austria.

It is to be hoped that the U.S. State Department will assist the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum in obtaining a copy of the Blimlinger/Schallmeiner Report and in facilitating conversations through the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, consistent with the Washington Principles on Holocaust-Era Assets.   It is to be hoped that President Obama's Ambassador to Austria, Amb. William Eacho will take a personal interest in the plight of Jews dispossessed in the Holocaust.

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