A Complex History—Mauerbach, Bloch-Bauer, and More

Austria was annexed by the Third Reich in March 1938 when the German army marched in and met with cheers. Anti-Semitic Nazi policies of persecution continued in Austria; Jews, their livelihoods and their property were in peril. Some had already left Austria, and some were able to flee. Property and art were appropriated, and thousands of the best works of art were incorporated into museum collections. After the war, survivors who returned to recover their art had to negotiate with museum directors which items they could export in exchange for “gifts” that would remain in the museums.

In the late 1980s, a large cache of “ownerless” paintings stored at a monastery in Mauerbach since the end of World War II was brought to world attention by Andrew Decker, writing in ARTnews. The scandal resulted in an auction for the benefit of Jewish charities and a specially tailored Austrian law allowing purchasers at the sale to acquire good title, no matter who the former owner might be. Christie’s ran the auction at cost.

More recently, the signal event that forced Austria to reassess its post-War retention of art taken from Jews was the case of the two Egon Schiele paintings on loan to the Museum of Modern Art from the Viennese Leopold Foundation. Two families pressed MOMA to return the pictures, and the museum, unable to be judge and jury and under its contractual obligations, demurred. The claimants did not file suit, but the paintings were subpoenaed by the New York State District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in 1998 and subsequently (just one of them) seized by the U.S. government. 

Reaction in Austria was intense. Newspapers published opinions and newly uncovered information for weeks. While some maintained that the U.S. had no regard for private property and viewed New York as the Wild West, others began to comb through archives and discovered and exposed many instances of the reprehensible “deals” struck by museum directors with collectors who returned after the war.

A new law, introduced by then culture minister Elisabeth Gehrer, set up a government commission to review and research art claims stemming from World War II. Among the first to succeed were the heirs of the Austrian Rothschilds, and others, like Thomas Selldorff, a grandson of Richard Neumann, also recovered art.  The heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer were successful in recovering some porcelain and drawings, but were denied the five oil paintings by Gustav Klimt that had been hanging in the national museum in the Belvedere Palace for decades.

Bringing a lawsuit to recover art in Austrian court requires that a claimant first post a bond close to the value of the property in question.  Families who escaped with little but their lives are not in a position to post a multi-million dollar bond. To recover the Klimts, the Bloch-Bauer heirs sued Austria in U.S. federal court; Austria fought their right to sue, claiming it was shielded by the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.  After the heirs won a decision from the Supreme Court on that question, Austria agreed to the arbitration the heirs had suggested years earlier. As a result, the five Bloch-Bauer Klimts were recovered, and his Adele Bloch-Bauer I is now in the Neue Galerie, New York. The heirs claim to a sixth painting, Klimt’s Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl was rejected by the Austrian Supreme Court in May 2008

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Press & Scholarly

Press & Scholarly

Background Information