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March 6, 2015 5:10 pm

Austrian Panel Rules Against Returning Gustav Klimt Fresco to Jewish Heirs

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JNS.orgAn Austrian panel has ruled that the famous fresco “Beethoven Frieze” by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt should not be returned to the heirs of a Jewish art collector, who claim the painting belongs to them.

The Frieze fresco, painted in 1902, shows Vienna’s Secession Building for the Beethoven Exhibition of that time. Originally, Carl Reinighaus bought the frieze, but in 1915 he sold it to a Jew named August Lederer, who was a friend of Klimt. After losing the painting to the Nazis, the Lederer family, whose chief heir is currently August’s son Erich Lederer, received the painting back after World War II.

Although August Lederer sold the piece in the 1970s, his heirs allege that he was forced to do so due to a government ban on exports after numerous requests for a waiver. The Austrian government, which had purchased the fresco for 15 million schillings ($750,000 at the time), says that although Lederer’s export waiver request had been pending since 1967, the government never actually threatened him with a ban.

The panel that denied the heirs’ request issued only a recommendation, which is not legally binding. Since the decision cannot be appealed, the case could be taken to the European Court of Human Rights, or even to the U.S since one of the 11 heirs is American, reported the Wall Street Journal.

The case also echoes an upcoming film—”Woman in Gold,” starring Ryan Reynolds and Hellen Mirren—that tells the story of a woman’s 10-year battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to reclaim another work by Gustav Klimt that had belonged to her family. In that case, the family lost the painting to the Nazis and was never able to regain it.

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  • Julian Covelley

    The sale in question took place long after the war and appears to have been freely negotiated between seller and purchaser. The originally temporary mural was in fact returned to the museum where had been painted on the walls and was renovated by the Austrian Government

    The case seems to hinge on the question of whether an export ban forced the sale. Export bans on works of art are quite common. In many nations you cannot just buy a major work and send it to another country and this applies outside of Europe too – in countries such as Egypt. It prevents money being used to “loot” art treasures

    I am a little disturbed that this article does not seem to have researched the Court case properly – and I read it as a knee jerk reaction. You cannot reasonably seek to invalidate every transaction simply because later generations are dissatisfied post-eventum of the price. I bought my own house for about a quarter of its present value – A family member of the original owner and builder of it asked to buy it back several years after I had largely rebuilt it

    I had to tell them that it was not on offer for the foreseeable future, but also that were I to sell it, it would be at the current market price. I never heard from them again

    I too was very careful when purchasing my house that it was done in a regular fashion, at the then market value, openly and in accordance with the sellers desire. Sadly future generations often wish their predecessors had not sold their property – in my family they sold a sizeable part of a major Australian city in the early twentieth century for what it was then worth, which was next to nothing. I don’t fancy the descendants chances of getting that back either.

    the sale of the painting seems to have had nothing to do with its period of Nazi ownership. It was fully in the Lederer family’s possession at the time of sale – The argument is only over the validity of the export ban I would have thought. I understand the owner could have kept the painting so long as it remained in Austria

    Try purchasing and exporting the Mona Lisa – and let us know how far you get