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Austrian minister calls for clarity on 'looted' art allegations

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1945
International Herald Tribune 26 March 2008
Associated Press report

VIENNA, Austria: Austria's culture minister said Wednesday she was seeking "clarity" regarding an art collection that allegedly contains works stolen by the Nazis.

The Leopold Museum Private Foundation in Vienna has been criticized by the country's Jewish community and others. Ariel Muzicant, head of Vienna's Jewish community, has said several of the foundation's paintings were looted by the Nazis.

Culture Minister Claudia Schmied said she expected the foundation to "open up" by early April and approve an independent examination of its collection by two researchers paid by the federal government.

"This is about clarity, about the clear laying out of facts on the provenance of these works of art," Schmied said at a news conference.

A legal opinion commissioned by the Jewish community found that at least 11 of the foundation's works, including some by Egon Schiele, Anton Romako and Albin Egger-Lienz, belonged to people who were persecuted by the Nazis — and that collector Rudolf Leopold must have been aware, when he acquired them, of the possibility that they had been seized.

"He knew, or he must have known, that these paintings belonged to people who were persecuted by the Nazis," said Georg Graf, a professor of private law at the University of Salzburg who wrote the legal opinion. "Because of that knowledge, he must have been aware of the possibility that these were stolen goods."

Leopold, in an interview Wednesday with the newspaper Die Presse, disputed the allegations.

"In my eyes, the pictures were acquired lawfully," Leopold said. Not one allegation made by Muzicant was true, Leopold said.

"Lots of lies and half truths are being spread," he said.

Austria has returned looted works of art held by federal museums to their rightful owners or heirs, most of them Jewish, under a 1998 restitution law.

Muzicant demanded after a news conference Wednesday that the law be changed by summer so that paintings from the Leopold foundation might also be returned to rightful owners. He has also called for the closure of the museum.

Also Wednesday, Schmied said the government planned to change Austrian law to formally include other looted objects, such as cars and radios, as well as art. Some objects of this nature have already been returned in the past, Schmied's spokesman said.

The current law applies only to items looted between 1938 and 1945.

The proposed changes would backdate the start of the eligible period to 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany. Under the amended law, not only objects expropriated in Austria but also in the Third Reich's "region of influence" would be returned.

Schmied said the changes would make the process clearer and help victims or their heirs get their goods back more quickly. She was optimistic the government would approve the changes by summer.

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