Presentation of the official delegation of Austria at the Vilnius Forum
Prof. Dr. Ernst Bacher, Curator General at the Federal Bureau for Preservation of National Heritage and Chairman of the Federal Commission for Provenance Research
3-5 October 2000
Austria sent an official delegation led by Prof.Dr. Ernst Bacher to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation set out below.
All countries present at the Vilnius Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
During the 1998 Washington Conference on the Holocaust-Era Assets, we reported on the situation in Austria regarding activities to restitute looted art objects, and also on the work of the Commission for Provenance Research. The following results have been achieved to date:
Based on the Federal law passed at the end of 1998 "On the Restitution of Works of Art from the Austrian Federal Museums and Collections", thus far 526 works of art from various Austrian state museums and collections and an extensive literary estate have been returned to their original owners or their heirs. This was not the result of claims which had been made, but according to the parameters of the Art Restitution Law, according to which the Republic of Austria itself assumes the obligation to initiate restitution of illegally seized works of art in its possession (null and void legal proceedings of the period 1938-1945 or disadvantageous transactions according to the Austrian Export Prohibition Law after 1945). (See the Art Restitution Law 1998).
The work of the Provenance Research Commission provided the factual foundation for all the restitution cases thus concluded. For each case, the Commission establishes a compilation of the historic facts gleaned from the surviving sources in archives of the Federal Museums and of the Bundesdenkmalamt (and very often also in other archives). In accordance with the law a committee established in the Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture examines this evidence with regard to the criteria set forth in the Art Restitution Law and then makes an appropriate recommendation to the Federal Minister.
At the time of the compilation of the dossier on the historic facts (at the latest, before this information is passed on to the Committee), the Commission attempts to locate the former owners or their heirs in order to inform them of the results of the provenance research. This ensures that the persons affected have the opportunity to express an opinion about the information, to check its accuracy and completeness and to contribute any additional material.
A Bureau for Restitution Affairs was specially-established by the Jewish community and, together with the office of the National Fund for Nazi Victims provided valuable assistance in the search for the heirs of former owners.
What are the problems which arise during the restitution process? Overall, it can be noted that surviving sufficiently-extensive and detailed documentation materials in archival sources are barely available for providing appropriate legal clarity to establish the historic facts. Almost invariably there remains a more or less wide space for interpretation. Furthermore, a number of the decisions of restitution cases from the 1950's and 1960's have proved to be difficult hurdles, as only in exceptional instances has the recent availability of new historic facts enabled a new judgment of the legal perspectives.
The 1998 Art Restitution Law only affects the Federal museums and collections. The Austrian Provinces have, however, joined this initiative on a wide scale. Active provenance research is also being undertaken at this level, and there have already been several successful returns based on Provincial Law settlements (see the presentation by Dr. Düriegel).
In the two and a half years of its existence, the Provenance Research Commission has, in part, completed the examination of the archives of accessions made between 1938 and 1945 in Federal museums and collections, and other parts are making good progress. The successful restitution activities have largely concentrated on the large art museums and the National Library. Here, too, are the sources for the cases currently being processed by the Commission.
Our experience to date has led us to conclude that the examination of the archival material cannot just be limited to the accessions between 1938 and 1945 and the immediate post-war years. Until recently, the 1960's were considered to be the horizon of the time-line, but it now appears that even accessions made in the subsequent decades could have arguably questionable provenance and it will be necessary to extend the cut-off date to the recent past. This and the fact, that the dimension of the materials to be examined by the provenance researchers has proven to be much more extensive had been assumed in 1998, makes setting a time limit unrealistic for the time being.
Furthermore, one should not underestimate the fact that this is a thorough, systematic examination of the material. This means that innumerable leads to possible accessions and purchases must be traced if there is any inkling of a suspicious provenance. Whether or not the suspicions turn out to be unfounded, the research requires just as much time.
The starting point of the provenance research, the amount of which is never quantifiable from the outset, is established by the numerous inquiries about stolen works of art received by the Commission from owners or their heirs from all over the world. During the last year over 130 such cases were researched. Even though, as a rule, the chances of making a watertight claim for stolen art are relatively slim, the Commission attempts to trace the information and former owners or their heirs. It goes without saying that this creates an enormous amount of extra work (making contact with other institutions, museums, experts, etc.). These activities are always greeted very positively by those involved, even when the inquiries are (as is usually the case), unsuccessful. However, a few eases of stolen art have been successfully traced in the convoluted paths of the art market, occasionally even over Austria's borders.
What new suggestions could provenance research and restitution activities engender for international collaboration? - It would be desirable to establish:
1. A list of contact points and specialists for international restitution cases and/or for concrete questions of provenance research.
2. An exchange of information about relevant archival material in other countries, their accessibility and/or their usefulness.
3. An internationally-linked network of provenance-research desiderata (e.g. the art market 1938-45).
4. A network of pertinent databases and registries of data for provenance research which could also be made available to the heirs of former owners who wish to undertake their own research (it is impossible for the Provenance Research Commission to provide the data and research for every case and for all injured parties, as has lately been assumed by certain large legal firms who are filing restitution claims for their clients).
5. A central registry and information collection point in collaboration with a coordination of the data in individual countries, as was suggested in the "Principles with Respect to Nazi-Confiscated Art" at the Washington conference. The support of research projects and publications for generally relevant investigation.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).