Dispute over Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze”

The “Beethoven Frieze” (1902), by Gustav Klimt
The “Beethoven Frieze” (1902), by Gustav Klimt

An interesting dispute is unfolding involving this terrific Klimt. It involves a sale of the work which was given at far below the market price in exchange for the export of other works of art. From the NYT:

The gold-painted frieze was owned by the Lederer family, wealthy Austrian Jews who were important patrons of Klimt’s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, the family escaped to Switzerland, but its extensive art collection was seized and its once formidable industrial empire bankrupted. Many of the family’s valuable works, including 18 Klimts, were destroyed in the final days of the war.

The mammoth frieze survived and was formally returned to Erich Lederer, the family heir, after the war. But there was a hitch. The Austrian government would grant him export licenses for his other artworks only if he sold the “Beethoven Frieze” to the state at a cut-rate price, Mr. Lederer’s heirs say.

In a 1972 letter to Bruno Kreisky, then the Austrian chancellor, Mr. Lederer complained about what he considered government extortion, writing that officials were “trying to force me to my knees” and thinking “why won’t he finally die, this LEDERER!”

Mr. Lederer finally agreed to sell the frieze to the government in 1973 for $750,000: half of its estimated worth at the time, according to an evaluation by Christie’s. Since 1986, it has been on view at the turn-of-the-century Secession gallery, where it was first shown at a 1902 exhibition named after Klimt’s breakthrough art movement.

Georg Graf, a law professor and restitution expert at the University of Salzburg, who is supporting the family’s claim, said, “While the Austrian Republic did formally return the artwork after the war, it ultimately forced Erich Lederer to sell it back in old age by upholding the export ban.”

Cohen, Patricia. “Heirs Press Austria to Return Looted Klimt Frieze.The New York Times, October 15, 2013.

Moctezuma’s Crown

This Headdress the “Mona Lisa of anthropology” may be returning to Mexico for the first time in 500 years

Mexico and Austria may be nearing an agreement which would allow this stunning crown to be returned to Mexico. This feaethered headdress, or kopilli ketzalli currently sits in the Vienna Museum of Ethnology. It was sent there by Hernán Cortés in the mid 16th century as a gift to Charles V, the Kindg of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. There are over 400 Quetzal feathers in the headdress. The gold helmet attached to the feathers was melted down. But there are obstacles to the return of the headdress:

Two issues need to be resolved before a loan can be arranged. The first hurdle is legal, since there is a long-standing Mexican law that forbids the re-export of any archaeological material from the country. Initially it was hoped that the headdress would not be regarded as archaeological, but the Vienna museum needs assurance that its return would not be blocked. A special presidential decree on the headdress was discussed, but this might not be legally binding on future presidents. The Mexican government is now considering a change in the law on the re-export of antiquities.
Austrian and Mexican conservators also need to agree to the loan. The headdress was remounted on a display board in 1992 and cannot be easily detached. Conservators are reluctant to do so until a decision has been made on a new backing. This will depend on whether it has to be fit to travel. The feather vanes are fragile so a vibration-free case would have to be devised.

  1. Martin Bailey, Heading back to Mexico a step at a time, The Art Newspaper, March 10, 2011, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Heading+back+to+Mexico+a+step+at+a+time+/23243 (last visited Mar 10, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Undoing a Sale to HItler

The Art Of Painting By Johannes Vermeer, 1666-1673 The Austrian Culture Ministry has revealed that it has received a formal request for the restitution of this work, The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer.  The family of Jaromir Czernin has urged its return for nearly 40 years, but the Austrian authorities refused on the grounds the sale was voluntary.  However an attorney for the Czernin family argues the work was sold to guarantee the safety of Czernin and his family.  The work was sold to Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmark.  Irrespective of the outcome of this request, arguing Hitler purchased the disputed work is not exactly the kind of publicity Austria’s Kunsthistorisches Museum would enjoy. 

Philippe Schwab, Vienna museum fears restitution of stolen Vermeer [AFP, Sep. 13, 2009]. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Be careful what you throw away

Wild story from Earth times:

Vienna – An old cross recovered by an Austrian woman from a garbage container turned out to be an 800-year-old French masterpiece stolen from a Polish collection by the Nazi regime, Austrian police said on Thursday. In 2004, the woman from Zell am See in the province Salzburg got permission from her neighbours to look through a garbage container of things they had thrown out. Among other things, she took an old, gold-coloured cross. As nobody else liked it, the woman kept the gold-plate and enamel cross under her couch until showing it to art experts earlier this year. According to experts from Vienna’s Fine Arts Museum, the piece of garbage turned out to be a passion cross from a manufacturer in Limoges in France made around 1200. Similar pieces fetched up to 400,000 euros (537,000 dollars) at international auctions. Police traced the origin of the cross, showing the piece had been stolen by the Nazi regime from the Polish art collection of Izabella Elzbieta of Czartoryski Dzialinska in 1941. Pieces from the collection were moved from Warsaw to Austria, where the trail ended in 1945. The cross’s fate still remains unclear. The London-based Commission for Looted Art, informed by the Polish authorities, is representing the heirs. The local court in Zell am See decided that for the time being the garbage-treasure was to be kept at the local heritage museum at Leogang, where it could be properly stored.

Pretty cool find. One wonders how much is thrown away that does not get rescued. The case presents some interesting legal issues. I imagine the heirs of the deceased collector would perhaps have a claim. I’m not sure what the relevant limitations period in Austria would be, but it may be that the limitations has expired and the finder would get to retain title.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com