Munch painting stolen by Nazis is returned to Mahler heir

1945 9 May 2007

Vienna (dpa) - Austria Wednesday returned Edvard Munch's "Summer Night at the Beach" to Marina Fistoulari-Mahler, granddaughter and sole heir of Alma Mahler, wife of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

After more than five decades of legal disputes a panel had ruled in November 2006 that the painting, on display at Vienna's Belvedere Gallery, was to be returned.

Fistoulari-Mahler, Claudia Schmid, Austria's minister in charge of art and culture and Belvedere director Agnes Husslein signed the restitution documents in the palace's main hall on Wednesday morning.

"I am deeply moved," Fistoulari-Mahler said when the painting was handed over. "I thank Austria for the courage to accept that the painting had to be returned."

Minister Schmid stressed her support for the decision, already made under the previous conservative government, and said she would continue to look into other cases.

"We will investigate all cases, where there is suspicion of illegal activities and want to help Nazi victims to get their rights."

In 1937 Alma Mahler-Werfel, by then married to writer Franz Werfel, agreed to loan the painting to the Belvedere Gallery for two years.

In March 1938, after Hitler's annexation of Austria, she was forced to flee the country with her Jewish husband.

Meanwhile the gallery attempted to buy the painting from her. She refused, but in 1940 Alma's step father, Nazi supporter Carl Moll, sold the painting to the Belvedere in the name of Alma's half-sister.

After the end of World War II in 1945, Alma demanded the painting's return, and in 1953 a commission ruled that her demands were justified.

Several Austrian authorities however challenged the ruling, and as late as 1999 a restitution panel rejected claims by the Mahler family.

Experts estimate the painting's worth to be between 8 and 10 million dollars.

In 2006 Austria returned five paintings by Gustav Klimt, also from the Belvedere, to the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
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