Stealing Beauty Dispute Rages Over Austria's Looted Art

The dispute over a number of works of art in Vienna's Leopold collection that were stolen by the Nazis reveals the extent to which art institutions are trying to avoid returning looted art. Many museums and private collectors continue to hold onto cultural assets that were confiscated from their Jewish owners after 1933.

By and Marion Kraske

After a soft humming sound, a wooden door opens to reveal the view of a courtyard building against the backdrop of hills covered with vineyards near Vienna. A Filipino maid greets us with a smile, and then a frantic-looking, slender, elderly man rushes past her, his briefcase in hand and his trench coat flapping.

The man is Rudolph Leopold. He says that he has an important appointment and asks us to be patient. The interview, he says, which will also include a photographer, requires a prior beard-trimming by the barber around the corner.

Three-quarters of an hour later, the 83-year-old Leopold appears in the living room of the labyrinthine house and sits down on a rustic chair. Dark oil paintings, including one by Dutch painter Roelant Savery, painted in 1606, adorn the walls.

His salt-and-pepper beard properly trimmed, the man now seems ready to spar, almost as if he had used the session with the barber to prepare himself, both physically and mentally, for a tough battle.

Leopold, Austria's best-known art collector, is in fact fighting for his reputation and that of the sand-colored temple to art in downtown Vienna named after him, the Leopold Museum.

While it has long been suspected that the museum was home to stolen art, discussion of the issue has been especially heated of late. The stolen art in question consists of works that Jewish owners were forced to relinquish during the Nazi era.

Leopold, a native of Vienna, has collected an impressive 5,500 works of art over the course of several decades. It is an achievement, he says proudly, that requires "a natural talent." A medical doctor and ophthalmologist, Leopold makes no secret of his faith in his skills as a collector. He stresses that he is known and respected internationally as one of the "leading art experts on paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries."

The works of Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who died in 1918 when he was only 28, and whose extensive body of work centers around awkward and often almost pornographic nudes of women and girls -- it is these works for which, he says, that he, Leopold, helped develop an international reputation with a 1955 exhibition in Amsterdam.

There is no doubt that Leopold sought to achieve great things for Austrian art, and that he was successful in some respects. For Schiele lovers, his museum, with its unprecedented collection of the expressionist painter's works, is the foremost of its kind worldwide.

But now the government-subsidized museum is on the verge of becoming a national blemish. The chairman of the Israelite Cultural Community of Vienna, Ariel Muzicant, has even called for the museum to be shut down until certain issues have been resolved. In addition, the Jewish group recently published a report on what it considers amoral works in the Leopold collection.

Ironically, in the same year in which Austria is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss, its annexation to Nazi Germany, with a host of events, the art world reveals how sensitive chapters from this past still remain unresolved today. And the allegations are indeed serious.

The Leopold Museum Private Foundation, established in 1994, is at the center of the controversy. The Austrian state, which bought Leopold's collection for €160 million ($253 million), owns 50 percent of the foundation. Despite its public funding, Leopold's museum is considered a private institution. It is a construct that also shields the museum against claims for restitution, because such claims are only effective when filed against government-owned institutions.

The debate focuses, on the one hand, on paintings in the current special exhibition of the works of Austrian historical painter Albin Egger-Lienz (1868 to 1926), who is not very well known but was once admired by the Nazis. The provenances of at least 15 of the paintings, including several works on loan from smaller Austrian provincial museums, are considered dubious. As are two paintings aquired by Leopold, "Forest Scene" and "The Mountain Mowers," as well as a sketch for the painting "After the Armistice."

There are other paintings in the museum's collection with dark histories. According to experts, they include several works by Egon Schiele and another Austrian painter, Anton Romako (1832 to 1889):

  • "Portrait of Wally" (Schiele)
  • "Houses by the Seaside" (Schiele)
  • "Woman in Underwear" (Schiele)
  • "Nike with Wreath" (Romako)
  • "The Spring" (Romako)
  • "Nude of a Young Girl" (Romako)
  • Four Schiele drawings that are not as well known.

However, experts also say that detailed research would certainly uncover more stolen art.

There are dramatic stories behind every picture. Schiele's painting "Houses by the Seaside" was originally owned by Jenny Steiner, a Jewish collector. After the Nazis came to power, she fled to Brazil and then to the United States. She was forced to leave a fortune in art behind in her Vienna apartment. As in hundreds of thousands of other cases, the Nazi Property Transfer Office then seized the works.

But the question is how much of this did Leopold know when he purchased his paintings. Was he oblivious, as he claims? Or was there the occasional case in which his passion and love of painting prevailed over his better judgment?

A list of Schiele works published in 1930 identifies Jenny Steiner as the owner of "Houses by the Seaside." Leopold acquired the large work personally at an auction.

And then there is Schiele's black chalk drawing "Woman in Underwear," from the collection of Heinrich Rieger. Rieger, a Jewish dentist from Vienna, was murdered at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in October 1942. About six months later, the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper announced the confiscation of his assets. The Leopold Museum's provenance database makes no mention of the fact that the painting belonged to Rieger.


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