A huge row brewing in Vienna over a Gustav Klimt masterpiece has been largely overlooked by the press, which remains preoccupied with Cornelius Gurlitt’s secret stashes of over 1500 allegedly Nazi-looted artworks in Munich and Salzburg. The other story concerns Klimt’s monumental, 7×111 foot Beethoven Frieze, an elaborate gilded Jugendstil fantasy celebrating the composer’s Ninth Symphony. Klimt painted it in 1902 for the historic opening of Vienna’s new gallery devoted to the breakaway Seccession Movement, founded by Klimt with other radical artists.The famous landmark is also known as the “cabbage” building because of the elaborate curlicued golden decoration on its roof. Intended only for temporary exhibition, the frieze remained on the walls throughout a major 1903 retrospective exhibition of Klimt’s work. That same year it was bought by an important Viennese collector, Carl Reininghaus, who had the frieze removed from the walls in eight separate sections which he then left in storage for a dozen years in a furniture depository. In 1915, Reininghaus sold the work to August Lederer, one of Klimt’s foremost supporters and patrons. But, with the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, Lederer was forced to escape to Switzerland, leaving behind his home and art collection which was appropriated by the Nazis.
After the end of the war, some of the Lederer family’s looted art works were returned to August Lederer’s son Erich, but, like many Jewish families whose possessions were plundered by the Germans, the family had to fight long and hard to for permission to take these back to the countries where they had fled at outbreak of war. Usually, this resulted in further victimisation of these dispossessed families, who, after protracted haggling, were coerced into signing special “deals” to regain some of their belongings. Because of Austria’s strict laws at the time, prohibiting the export of works of historic and cultural value, the Lederers were forced to donate, or to sell at knockdown prices, their most valuable paintings to the Austrian state, in return for being allowed to take other works to Switzerland. This was nothing less than extortion by the Austrian authorities. Although Erich Lederer waited for many years to be allowed to take his beloved Beethoven Frieze home to Switzerland, in 1973 he capitulated to Austria’s demands, and sold the iconic work to the state at a cut price rate of $750.000. At the time, this was acknowledged to be less than half the value of the work, estimated by Christie’s at $2 million. The frieze, by then badly damaged, was restored and eventually installed in a specially designed room at the Sccession Museum. There, just as Klimt’s iconic “The Kiss” in another Viennese gallery, this masterwork continues to attract visitors and art lovers from around the world.
That might have been the end of the matter until, last September, heirs of the Lederer family dropped a bombshell by filing a legal claim for the return of the work.The demand is by far the most high profile case to emerge since a new restitution law was passed in Austria in 2009. This allows Nazi-looted art, as well as art previously sold by former owners under duress or at a great discount because of the country’s export ban, to be returned to the claimants. According to legal experts, the Beethoven Frieze is a textbook case for this new restitution law. Under the terms of the 2009 law, all Austria’s museums and public collections must allow investigations into the origins and provenance of all their artworks for evidence of forced sales and disposal of other people’s property on a nod and a wink by dealers who were Nazi sympathisers and collaborators. A special Restitution Commission, responsible for supervising these probes, meets five or six times a year and publishes its recommendations online. The commission will now look into the Lederer family’s claim and then submit its findings to a restitution advisory panel in Vienna, who are likely to decide on the case later this year. The panel will then make a recommendation to Austria’s culture minister, who is responsible for the final decision.
In the meantime, The Seccession Museum, which houses the masterpiece, is defending itself against the claim, arguing there is written evidence that Erich Lederer sold the Beethoven Frieze to the Austrian state in an amicable transaction, claiming that he sold the frieze for a price “voluntarily negotiated by him and considered by him to be reasonable.” Lawyers for Lederer’s Swiss heirs emphasise that correspondence owned by the museum and now cited as evidence for an amicable negotiation proves nothing, and that such arguments are self-serving and “truly cynical”. But, as the art world eagerly awaits the verdict in this wrangle, another burning question remains: Christie’s valued the Beethoven Frieze at $2 million in 1973. Given the record breaking multiple millions that Gustav Klimt’s paintings now command on the open market, what is its estimated 2014 value ? The fight has only begun, and the sums involved remain anyone’s guess.
In Germany, where so far no such restitution law exists, heritage experts and art dealers are watching this case with keen interest. The German authorities have come under fire for their indifference towards last November’s disclosure, by a popular magazine, of 81 year-old Cornelius Gurlitt’s secret cache of over 1500 art works in a Munich flat. Many hundreds of the works are suspected of being Nazi-looted treasures. Until now, no complete list of the hidden canvases, which customs officials have kept under lock and key for two years, has been released. In response to outrage from Jewish organisations as well as the governments of Israel, the UK and the USA, the new culture minister Monika Grutters, recently proposed the establishment of an independent centralised body to deal with restitution and provenance issues. And last week, the German government announced it was considering a law, proposed by the justice minister, permitting families to recover works of art stolen from them during the war or else acquired from them under duress. The main feature of the new law would be the removal of the 30 year statute of limitations, which has prevented anyone claiming their possessions since 1975. Given that most of the original owners of Nazi-looted art works were either murdered in German death camps or have died of old age, it all seems too little, too grudging, too late. Had the scandal of Cornelius Gurlitt’s secret treasure trove not focused international attention on Germany’s shameful indifference to matters of restitution, would the government ever have decided to do the right thing ?