VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria will tighten rules requiring the restitution of art seized during the Nazi period, the government said on Wednesday following criticism from the Jewish community.
Culture Minister Claudia Schmied said an exemption for private foundations, which has excluded claims against Vienna's Leopold Museum, would be re-examined.
"I am seeking a clear regulation of the matter of restitution regarding the Leopold Foundation. The debate of the past few weeks has not enhanced the reputation of the republic and especially not that of the Leopold Foundation," she said.
She had asked the foundation to agree to a comprehensive survey of the provenance of the museum's entire collection.
Property belonging to Jews was confiscated as a matter of course during Nazi rule in Germany and neighboring countries.
Debate was revived after Austria's Jewish community leader, Ariel Muzicant, said in a television interview in February the Leopold Museum should be closed down until the law was changed.
The museum, one of Vienna's major tourist attractions, is classed as a private foundation even though it is state-funded.
In addition, the government will seek the return of works taken between 1933, when Hitler first came to power in Germany, and 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated.
The current law covers from 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, to 1945.
Before the war, Austria's Jewish community numbered around 200,000 and was among Europe's most vibrant. Many fled and 65,000 were killed in Nazi pogroms or camps. Only 10,000 Jews remain in Austria today.
The change in the law would also broaden the definition of property that could be returned and include goods expropriated in all areas of influence of the Nazis' Third Reich.
Thousands of art works have been returned to their original owners or their heirs under the present law. It was unclear how much more property would be covered by the changes announced on Wednesday.
Sophie Lillie, an art researcher, told Reuters the most significant work at issue is "Haeuser am Meer" (Houses on the Sea) by 20th-century expressionist Egon Schiele. It was seized by the Nazis in 1938 and is claimed by a British family.
One report values it at $15 million.
"Any national museum would have given it back long ago," Lillie said.
Erika Jakubovits, a spokeswoman representing the Jewish community in Austria, welcomed the government's change of heart.
"This is what we have long wanted and hoped for ... the initiative on the Leopold Museum is to be welcomed.
"We feel a responsibility for all Austrian or former Austrian Jews wherever they may be to help them advance this matter so that art works can be returned," she said.
Rudolf Leopold, 83, founder of the collection and an expert on Schiele, was quoted by cultural weekly Falter last month as refusing to return "Haeuser am Meer".
"I have never extorted from anyone and never bought anything that I knew had been Jewish property," he said.
(Writing by Paul Bolding; Editing by Alastair Sharp)