Austrian City to Return Klimt to Nazi Victim’s Heirs

Bloomberg 20 April 2009
By Catherine Hickley






The mayor of Linz said he will recommend that the Austrian city returns a Gustav Klimt painting worth about $15 million to the heirs of a Holocaust victim after new evidence indicated the portrait was looted by the Nazis.

The painting, which hangs in the city’s Lentos Museum, is of Ria Munk, who committed suicide in 1911 at the age of 24 because of an unhappy love affair. Her mother, Aranka Munk, asked Klimt to paint her posthumously, which he did, three times. Linz authorities had previously argued there was no proof to back up the heirs’ claim that the Lentos portrait was the one seized by the Nazis from Munk’s villa in Bad Aussee.

Last year, Linz promised to reexamine the claim after the grandson of the villa’s former caretaker signed a written declaration that he had seen the portrait in the house in 1942 as a nine-year-old boy. On the basis of the new research, Mayor Franz Dobusch recommended that the city council approves restitution to Munk’s heirs, a statement published today on Linz’s Web site said. The council meets on June 4.

“There is no complete certainty” that the painting is the same one, Erich Wolny, a Linz city official, said by telephone. “But there are strong indications that it was looted, and that is enough to warrant restitution.”

Austria was forced to relinquish five Klimt paintings in 2006 after a court ordered their return to Maria Altmann of California, a descendant of the Bloch-Bauer family. The works included the 1907 portrait known as “Golden Adele,” which was seized by the Nazis in 1938 and later given to the Belvedere art museum in Vienna. After the restitution, it was bought by Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million for his Neue Galerie in New York.

Third Portrait

The unfinished “Portrait of Ria Munk III” was Klimt’s third portrait of the young woman and is one of the crown jewels of the Lentos Museum’s collection. It shows the dark-haired, rosy-cheeked Ria with her body in profile, her face turned toward the viewer. Klimt died before completing it.

The portrait was one of dozens of Klimt paintings owned by the extended family: Aranka Munk’s sister Serena Lederer owned the largest private collection of Klimt’s works, most of which were destroyed by the Nazis in the final days of World War II.

“It is deeply gratifying to see the restoration of this family portrait,” the heirs of the Munk family, who declined to be identified by name, said in a joint statement released by their Vienna lawyer, Alfred Noll. “We thank the city of Linz for its commitment to justice.”

The heirs, descendants of Munk’s sisters, are scattered around the world, in Vienna, Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and Belgium.

Aranka Munk spent her last summer in the villa in 1938. She was forced to sell part of the property to neighbors in 1941, according to art researcher Sophie Lillie. The Gestapo seized her remaining property in 1942.

After losing her Vienna apartment, Munk and a younger daughter were herded into accommodation specifically for Jews. The mother was deported to Lodz in Poland in October 1941 and died weeks later. Her daughter was sent to the death camp at Chelmno, where she was murdered in September 1942.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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