Restitution of Works of Art
History and Foundations
Subsequent to 1945 the restitution of works of art was carried out in accordance with the restitution legislation prevailing at the time (chiefly in accordance with the first three Restitution Acts, Federal Law Gazette 156/1946, Federal Law Gazette 53/1947, Federal Law Gazette 54/1947) (Legal Foundations). Restitution was applied - under certain conditions - to works of art, which were claimed by victims of National-Socialist persecution or their descendants and whose location was known. Museums, or the Austrian Federal Office for the Care of Monuments (Bundesdenkmalamt) responsible for the restitution of works of art after 1945, only seldom undertook such measures of their own accord. In the process of restitution, mechanisms were once again applied to the detriment of the victims, for example with reference to the so-called Export Prohibition Act (Ausfuhrverbotsgesetz, State Law Gazette 90/1918, Federal Law Gazette 80/1923) (Legal Foundations). Supposed "acquisitions in good faith" through art dealers in the National-Socialist era constituted yet another problem area within the framework of restitution measures. Pursuant to the provisions contained in Sec. 4 of the Third Restitution Act (Legal Foundations), the acquirer, or "aryanizer" was not obligated to perform restitution.
Finally, with the expiration of the validation periods stipulated by restitution legislation and/ with the creation of the Collection Agencies in 1957 (Federal Law Gazette 73/1957) (Legal Foundations) – based on the provisions stipulated by the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 – the issue of restitution of works of art was temporarily closed.
At the beginning of 1998 two of the paintings by Egon Schiele from the Leopold Collection were confiscated at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York (MOMA). These two paintings, Portrait of Wally (from the former Lea Bondi-Jaray Collection) and Dead City III (from the former Fritz Grünbaum Collection) had been expropriated from their owners during the National-Socialist era. Subsequently, this legal case elicited a long-term change in the approach to the issue of Nazi looted art, not only in Austria, but also internationally.
This new approach reached its first climax in the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in December 1998. By recognizing the so-called Washington principles, the participating states, including Austria, undertook the obligation, among other things, to identify and restitute confiscated works of art. http://www.state.gov/www/regions/eur/Holocaust/heacappen.pdf
In the wake of the events surrounding the confiscation of the two Schiele paintings from the Leopold Collection, the former Federal Minister for Education and Cultural Affairs Elisabeth Gehrer nominated a Commission for Provenance Research. Its goal was to systematically clarify the origin of the holdings in the Austrian federal museums and collections. The Federal Act on the Restitution of Art from Austrian Federal Museums and Collections (Federal Law Gazette 1998/141) (Legal Foundations) was also passed in December 1998. The objective of this artwork restitution legislation is to carry out the restitution of works of art and cultural objects from the Austrian federal museums and collections, which became the property of the federal government in the process or as a result of the National-Socialist regime, to their original owners or legal successors.
Since 1999 the City of Vienna and most of Austria's federal provinces (with the exception of Tyrol) have passed corresponding legal framework provisions and have commissioned experts to carry out provenance research in their collections.
One decade later, the Amendment to the Art Restitution Act in November 2009 (Federal Law Gazette I 117/2009) took into account what was learned in the ten years of art restitution and both specified and modified the approach.
With the measures stipulated by the legislation, Austria has taken on a pioneering role in an international comparison, although some problem areas remain. The Leopold Museum private foundation was the catalyst for the Art Restitution Act with the confiscation of two of its Schiele paintings in New York; however, as a specially constituted private foundation, it is not subject to the provisions contained in the law. This is regardless of the fact that the holdings, the museum and its ongoing operation have been and still are financed by tax money. For more information, please see www.raubkunst.at.
Over ten years after the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets representatives from 46 countries came together in June 2009 for the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference in order to bring about an improvement in international conditions, among other things, for the restitution of works of art and cultural objects. All 46 countries – including Austria – ratified the Terezin Declaration, which nonetheless is not a binding agreement. A European Institute for Legacy of the Shoah is to be set up in Terezín to support all countries, institutions and organizations that are involved in assisting victims of the National-Socialist regime.