VIENNA — Three years after a Vienna museum had to restore five Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis to their Jewish owners, the city's art museum is fearing the same fate for a piece by Vermeer.
Austria's culture ministry admitted last weekend that it had received a request for the restitution of "The Art of Painting" by 17th-century Flemish artist Johannes Vermeer, which has been on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) since 1946.
The painting was bought in 1940 by Adolf Hitler himself for his planned Fuehrer's Museum in the northern Austrian city of Linz.
"It would be a "painful loss", KHM director Sabine Haag said of a potential restitution.
"It's an absolute jewel," she added about the painting, noting that it was still too early to even consider giving it back.
Under a 1998 restitution law, Austria has already returned to their rightful owners some 10,000 artworks stolen by the Nazis after they annexed Austria in 1938.
In the latest case in April, the city of Linz returned a painting by Viennese master Gustav Klimt to the Jewish family who was robbed of it under the Third Reich.
In 2006, Vienna's Belvedere Museum had had to restore five major paintings by the artist to the descendants of the previous owner.
The Vermeer piece however is more debatable, according to experts.
The painting, which had belonged to the Czernin family since the 19th century, was officially sold to Hitler in 1940 by Jaromir Czernin for 1.65 million Reichsmark.
Requests to have it returned to the family in the 1960s were rejected on the grounds that the sale had been voluntary and the price had been adequate.
But a new expert's report commissioned by the family has concluded that the sale was made under duress.
"(Jaromir) Czernin had no choice: he had to sell in order to guarantee his family's safety," the family's lawyer Andreas Theiss told the daily Der Standard.
The brother-in-law of chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, who ruled Austria with an iron fist from 1934 to 1938 and attempted to oppose Hitler's annexation of his country, Czernin was also married to a woman of Jewish descendance.
However, Eva Blimlinger, scientific head of the Austrian commission studying the origins of artworks, concluded after examining the new expert's report that it contained "no new documents" from 40 years ago, according to Der Standard.
Opposition Green deputy Wolfgang Zinggl, who has pushed for the restitution of artworks in Austria, meanwhile told AFP: "This case threatens to overshadow others that are more obvious and have already been delayed too long."
The Israeli community, for instance, has long considered stolen over a dozen works at Vienna's Leopold Museum, including seven by Austrian artist Egon Schiele.
But unlike most of the country's art museums, the Leopold is a private institution and as such not subject to the 1998 law.
"As far as public collections are concerned however, museums follow the commission's recommendations quickly and without challenging them," said Zinggl.
The commission, whose recommendations are always followed by the ministry, systematically examines the origin of each piece that has entered public collections since the Third Reich.
In 2006, the Austrian state was unable to buy back the Klimt paintings, including the famous 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was subsequently sold by the owners for a record sum of 135 million dollars (92.4 million euros).
Given that less than 40 paintings by Vermeer exist in the world, "The Art of Painting" could easily fetch a similar price.
In 2004, a small Vermeer was sold by auction house Sotheby's for 23 million euros.