Austrian Police Seize Art Said to be Stolen by Nazis

The New York Times 16 November 2002
Peter S Green

PRAGUE, Nov. 15 — Austrian police seized a painting by Egon Schiele today, responding to complaints that it had once belonged to a Jewish collector who was forced to relinquish it in 1938 to a gallery owner connected to the Nazis.

A court in Vienna ordered the confiscation on Thursday. Art experts said it was the first time authorities in Austria had seized an art object on the grounds that it might have been illegally taken by the Nazi regime.

They hailed the move as a potential landmark in the battle for restitution of artwork and other property that was taken in Austria by the Nazis before and during World War II as part of a widespread practice called Aryanization.

The painting, "Wayside Shrine," a pocket-size oil that Schiele painted in 1907, was to have gone on sale on Nov. 27 at the Dorotheum, Vienna's leading auction house.

The painting was seized at the request of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wein, the organization representing Vienna's Jewish population. It was acting on behalf of the heirs of Dr. Heinrich Rieger, a Jewish dentist in Vienna whose collection of more than 800 works by early-20th-century Austrian artists was among the world's largest.

Dr. Rieger, who treated many artists who paid him in paintings, had his collection confiscated by prominent Nazi art collectors. He was deported by the Nazis and died in 1942 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is today the Czech Republic. His wife, Berta, died in Auschwitz in 1944.

The Riegers had one son, Robert, who fled Austria in 1938 with his wife and daughter. He is dead but his daughter, in her late 70's, lives in Philadelphia.

The outcome of the case could have ramifications throughout the art world because paintings from the Rieger collection now hang in public and private collections in many countries, and those works' ownership may be contested, too.

"It's not just this painting that this is about," Stephan Templ, an expert on art and property stolen by the Nazis from Jews in Austria, said in a telephone interview from Vienna. "Rieger was the biggest collector of modern art in Austria between the wars, and many more drawings and paintings that belonged to Rieger are in collections in Austria."

Mr. Templ and a colleague, Tina Walzer, an art historian, were browsing the Internet on Wednesday evening when they discovered that "Wayside Shrine" was coming up for sale.

The painting went from Dr. Rieger's collection directly into the hands of Friedrich Welz, a prominent Nazi-era gallery owner who Aryanized most of the Rieger collection, according to "Our Vienna: Aryanization in Austria," a book Mr. Templ and Ms. Walzer published last year in Germany.

"If there is now a legal possibility to seize Aryanized property, it would really change the situation in art restitution," Ms. Walzer said.

Willi Korte, a lawyer acting for one of Dr. Rieger's heirs, said, "This is the beginning of all kinds of trouble" for museums, galleries and auction houses in Europe.

"Rieger parted with his collection under duress," Mr. Korte added, "and from a U.S. legal perspective, they are stolen pictures, and we treat them as stolen property."

Mr. Korte helped represent the heirs of Lea Bondi, a Jewish gallery owner in Vienna whose paintings were also Aryanized. One of the works claimed by Bondi's heirs is "Portrait of Wally," an oil painting by Schiele that was on loan for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was seized in 1997 just before it was to be returned to Austria.

The Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, issued a grand jury subpoena, effectively preventing the painting from leaving the country.

The subpoena was later invalidated by an order of the New York State Court of Appeals, which found that the painting came under the jurisdiction of the state's 1968 Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, which prevents the seizure of works of art by the state.

But then the office of the United States Attorney in Manhattan brought its own case, asserting that the painting had been illegally imported in violation of the National Stolen Property Act. The painting is still in federal custody, and the case is pending.

Until now, efforts to recover Nazi-seized art in Austria and other European countries have been complicated by their legal systems based on Roman law. A provision known as bona fide purchase states that, in most cases, an object bought in good faith can no longer be recovered.

But in this case, lawyers for the Rieger descendants are prepared to argue that Ms. Walzer and Mr. Templ had already established and made public that the Rieger collection was — or could have been — stolen, and that the auction house should have known this.

"Wayside Shrine," painted on cardboard and measuring a mere 8 7/8 by 7 1/2 inches, was expected to sell for $45,000 to $60,000, according to estimates in the Dorotheum's catalog. Today the auction house removed the picture from its online catalog (

Mr. Korte said at least one Schiele painting from Dr. Rieger's collection was now in the Kamm Museum in Zug, Switzerland. Schiele paintings from the collection also include "Harbor of Trieste," a 1907 oil in the Joanneum museum in Graz, Austria, and "Meadow With Village in Background (II)" in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna.

The case's outcome may also pose a serious problem for the Dorotheum. "Vienna is still considered a safe harbor for Aryanized art because you have Roman law," Mr. Templ said. "If you sell an Aryanized painting in New York or London, the buyer will immediately lose it."

The Dorotheum admits that the painting passed directly from Dr. Rieger's collection to Friedrich Welz, citing a catalog of Schiele's work prepared by Jane Kallir, owner of the Galerie St. Étienne in Manhattan. Then it was bought by William Lincer, former first violist with the New York Philharmonic, who apparently knew nothing of the painting's history. He died in 1997.

Ms. Kallir was traveling today, but her partner, Hildegard Bachert, confirmed the provenance of the painting.
"Whether it was stolen or not is something that has to be established," Ms. Bachert said in a telephone interview.

"Not every Rieger was stolen. We don't know whether this was negotiated between Rieger and Welz, and whether Welz actually stole it."

The Dorotheum did not return telephone calls asking for comment, but Die Standard, an Austrian daily, reported today that one of the auction house's senior officers said: "We are not at fault. Because of Roman law, this is a bona fide purchase."

Ms. Walzer said she hoped the seizure would help change Austrian attitudes toward the confiscation and seizure of property during the war.

"The Austrians still don't realize that the expropriation of Jewish property was wrong," she said.
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