Restitution, Law of

Restitution, Law of
    The Nazi regime that governed Austria from 1938 to 1945 ruthlessly confiscated and often sold artworks owned by political émigrés, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Formal restitution began after 1945, but only to claimants who clearly identified these materials as theirs. The objects in question also had to have been found in repositories officially set up to hold looted and deaccessioned art during World War II. Even if possession was confirmed, the Austrian government had to wave an export prohibition for people who wanted to take their property out of the country or to sell it abroad. Originally put in place on 1 December 1918 during the fiscal crisis that followed the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, these restrictions were to keep financially pressed Austrians from liquidating the cultural heritage of their country in exchange for hard foreign currency. The provisions served as the prototype for a general Historical Monuments Preservation Law issued in 1923, which was most recently revised in 2000. Modified several times throughout the 20th century, the Austrian Office of Monument Preservation (Bundesdenkmalamt), a federal office housed in the Ministry of Education, has administered export permissions since 1945.
   The application of this law by successive Austrian governments and general bureaucratic evasiveness aroused worldwide criticism of Austria’s commitment to restitution. In 1946, the Austrian branch of the Rothschild banking family asked to have their artworks returned; although they got back a large number of their possessions, it was only on condition that they “donate” some major items to the state as part of Austria’s “cultural heritage.” By 1997, the debate on restitution policy swirled around claims of two Jewish families whose plaintiffs were both U.S. citizens for return of two paintings by Egon Schiele then on exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the Rudolf Leopold Collection, purchased by the Austrian state in 1994. In January 1998, New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau impounded the two pieces. One of them, the Portrait of Wally, remains the subject of continuing litigation. The other, Dead City II, went back to Austria after the testamentary claims of the plaintiff were deemed groundless.
   See also United States of America, Relations with.
   The uproar in the international art world that surrounded the case, along with pressure from the American Department of State, persuaded the Austrian government and its minister of education and cultural affairs, Elisabeth Gehrer (1942–), to take action. On 13 January 1998, she ordered Austrian museums to inventory all materials relating to acquisitions during World War II and in the period following. The provenance of all artworks in state hands had to be clarified.
   A restitution law for artworks was announced on 5 November 1998. The export ban can be waived for all properties that were in state possession and in Austrian museums through forced “donations.” Laws that had cleared Austrian governments from any responsibility for artworks that came under arrangements made before 1945 were reversed. All unclaimed works were to be managed by an Austrian National Fund, which would turn proceeds from auctions over to victims of National Socialism. The Rothschild family had the rest of their property restored to them in 1999. Thousands of works claimed by no heirs, that had been stored in a monastery near Vienna, had been turned over in 1946 to the city’s Jewish Community, to be sold at auction for its benefit.
   Another case, the ownership of several paintings by Gustav Klimt, was complicated less by export prohibitions than by stipulations in the wills made by the Bauer-Bloch family, Viennese Jews whose wealth had come from sugar manufacturing. In 2006, an arbitration panel in Austria ruled that the works belonged to Maria Altmann, a citizen of the United States, and a niece of the man who had given Klimt the commission.
   By 2007, the $201 million fund set aside to compensate Austrians who had been robbed of their artworks was running out. There was, however, a website ( listing 8,715 items of suspicious provenance in Austrian museums through which people could identify and claim property once theirs.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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