A shameful chapter in the history of the post-war Austrian government closes on 29 and 30 October when Christie’s auction more than 8,000 unclaimed works of art confiscated from Austrian Jews by the Nazis. The proceeds will benefit victims of the Holocaust. Christie’s take no percentage and the works have no reserves. The sale takes place at MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna and is expected to raise over £2.3 million. It includes Old Master and nineteenth-century paintings and drawings, arms and armour, decorative arts, coins (3,000 lots), books and ephemera (3,000 lots).
The catalogue reads like the contents of an enormous house sale where time has stood still for half a century. There is Oriental and European porcelain, Dutch, Delft, Meissen and Thun, Italian maiolica, glass, silver, rare Flemish and Brussels tapestries, European and Islamic carpets, Rococo, Biedermeier and Victorian furniture, books manuscripts and pamphlets, even a collection of Austrian theatre programmes.
All of this was stripped on Hitler’s orders from the homes of Austria’s wealthy Jews who either parted with their possessions in the hope of obtaining an exit visa or fled taking what they could carry with them. At the end of the war, the American army found a huge cache of stolen works of art lodged in a salt mine in upper Austria near Salzburg. They had been destined to form part of the massive collection of art Hitler intended to install in a magnificent museum in his native city of Linz. More than 10,000 objects were returned by the Austrian government and the Allies and in 1952 a remaining 8,000-9,000 objects whose owners had not been traced, were handed to the Austrian government. These are the works now being auctioned.
The Austrian government made derisory efforts to locate the rightful owners. The descendants of those citizens who had been murdered were too occupied establishing their new lives to pursue the matter. Had the government acted immediately it might have been possible for many of the claimants to produce proof of ownership. Austria’s failure to return the looted works to their original owners became a major scandal in 1984 when the American magazine ArtNews reported the existence of this cache of treasures still stored in the Austrian monastery of Mauerbach.
Under growing international pressure Austria published a list of objects inviting claimants. Heirs were asked to produce meticulous details of the works they were claiming. As a result the number of works actually returned numbered only a few hundred. In 1995 a special Act of Parliament was passed transferring ownership of the remaining unclaimed objects to the ”Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities” on whose behalf the auction will be held.
The sale however, is still plagued with difficulties. As soon as the catalogue is published new claimants are bound to come forward. How will potential purchasers regard the provenance of these works of art? Certainly there can be no doubt as to their authenticity or freshness to the market, but how comforting would it be to live with a work of art looted from the house of a murdered Jew whose descendants might be living in abject poverty? There are over 25,000 Austrian survivors of the Holocaust all over the world and there is bound to be enormous disagreement as to how the money should be dispersed. A steering committee has been set up to work in association with the World Jewish Congress and Jewish claims organisations. Educational projects and the alleviation of social difficulties for survivors are the two highest items on the agenda. The presence of objects containing Christian symbolism indicates that at least some of the objects belonged to non-Jewish victims of the Nazis; in recognition of this fact twelve percent of the sale proceeds have been set aside for non-Jewish victims in Austria.
Having bungled the affair for so long, Austria is now anxious to put the matter right in an unimpeachable manner. An International Honorary Committee has been set up to establish the credibility of the sale and oversee distribution of the proceeds. It is a roll-call of the world’s most influential Jews under the co-chairmanship of Ronald Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder International, and Edgar M. Bronfam, chairman of the Seagram Company. Politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, collectors and artists from around the globe are represented, among them Lord Rothschild, Israel Singer, Sir George Solti and Lord Hindlip.
The reaction of the Jewish community is one of relief blended with optimism. At long last this dreadful affair has been brought to a conclusion, whether satisfactorily or not is a matter of opinion, and the proceeds will produce tangible benefits for the dispossessed victims of the Holocaust. Dr Robert Liska, Vice-President of the Austrian Federation of Jewish Communities, made the following comment: “The sale is viewed as a move towards ending a tragic chapter in history and also a small step that the Jewish community in Austria can make towards changing its own history”.
What the sale includes
Contrary to initial reports, the Mauerbach sale includes some fine works of art. The Old Masters include several good Dutch pictures, notably a floral still life by Abraham Mignon (estimated low at $47,000-74,000) and an unusual late Nicholas Maes of nude children playing on a swing by a ruined arch (estimate $11,000-15,000). The most notable discovery is a “Madonna and Child with Saints” in its original tabernacle frame by the late Quattrocento Sienese painter, Pietro Orioli (estimate $75,000-110,000). Nineteenth-century German pictures comprise the majority of the sale, including watercolours by Rudolf and Franz von Alt and Wilhelm von Robell, an early Winterhalter of “Grape pickers”, a Neapolitan subject painted in Paris in 1839 ($47,000-74,000) and a huge allegorical ceiling canvas by Hans Mackart from the library of the palais Dumba, Vienna ($30,000-47,000). Ludwig Knaus’s “In the Schtetl” is a disquieting presence in this context ($47,000-74,000). There is a surprising number of strange secessionist canvases by Franz von Stuck, including “The duel” (being fought over a cold-blooded femme-fatale, of course; $47,000-74,000). Among the erotica are a gouache by Jean-Baptiste Mallet, “A couple making love in a barn” (equipped with several bottles of wine and a Turkish carpet; $47,000-74,000) and a group of secessionist pastels and watercolours by Hugo Höppener, aka Fidus, depicting long-haired vixens on lilypads and horses being orally serviced by bony young men (from $470-3000).
Most disturbing are a number of portraits of unknown men and women by Franz von Lenbach. Whose family portraits are these?
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Like a vast house sale where time has stood still since World War II'