Hitler’s Vermeer, Pride of Vienna Museum, Faces Nazi-Era Claim

Bloomberg 27 January 2010
By Catherine Hickley

Hermann Goering coveted it. Adolf Hitler purchased it. Now the heirs of the man who sold it to him want the Vermeer painting back from a museum in Vienna.

“The Art of Painting” is the most valuable painting in Vienna’s public collections and the only work by Johannes Vermeer in Austria. It’s housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where an exhibition on the history, restoration and content of the picture opened yesterday.

The show coincides with a government-sponsored inquiry into whether Hitler’s acquisition amounted to a “sale under duress” and the painting should be returned to the heirs of the seller. The heirs say Jaromir Czernin, who spent 15 years in lawsuits to get it back after World War II and lost, had no choice but to sell it as his family was under threat.

“I am pretty sure the Republic of Austria will give this picture back,” said Andreas Theiss, senior partner at Wolf Theiss, the law firm representing the heirs.

“It is clear that if Czernin had said ‘Mr. Fuehrer, I know you are interested in my painting, but bad luck,’ then it would have been taken away anyway and his family would have been sent to a concentration camp,” Theiss said over a fish lunch in a restaurant near the museum on Vienna’s Opernring.

Prized Vermeers

Theiss said it’s impossible to set a value for the painting, though low estimates put it at 150 million euros ($211 million). Only 34 paintings that scholars unanimously attribute to Vermeer exist today. They’re all in museums, including the Louvre, London’s National Gallery, the Metropolitan in New York, Dresden’s Gemaeldegalerie and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

“The Art of Painting,” dated between 1665 and 1668, is considered by many scholars to be the most important of these. It shows the artist in his studio, dressed in a stylish doublet, studying a demure model robed in blue, her eyes downcast. He is beginning to paint a wreath of blue laurel leaves on her head. A thick leather-bound book in one hand and a trumpet in the other reveal her identity as Clio, the Muse of History.

Vermeer didn’t paint it on commission and it stayed in his possession until his death in 1675. His widow, left in dire financial straits, tried to keep it but was forced to sell. It later was falsely attributed to Vermeer’s colleague Pieter de Hooch and was bought by the Czernin family in 1813.

Sale to Hitler

Jaromir Czernin inherited “The Art of Painting” in 1929. He decided to sell it, and in 1937 negotiated with U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon for a price of $1 million in gold. Austria agreed to grant the export permit, Theiss said.

Then, with the annexation of Austria to the German Reich in 1938, the sale abroad was no longer permissible. Czernin, whose family was Austrian aristocracy, began negotiating with the German industrialist Philipp Reemtsma. Theiss said Reemtsma may have been acting on behalf of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, who was desperate for a Vermeer for his own private collection -- so desperate, that he once traded 150 paintings for a forgery by Han van Meegeren.

As soon as Hitler found out about the talks, he made use of the “Fuehrervorbehalt,” his prerogative to acquire before others, because he wanted the picture for his Fuehrermuseum in Linz, the city where he spent his childhood. He acquired it for 1.65 million Reichsmarks (about $660,000 at the time). Reemtsma had offered 2 million Reichsmarks, Theiss said.

“It was important that Hitler got it for less,” Theiss said. “He wanted to show Goering: I am the more successful because I got it cheaper.”

Gestapo Arrest

The Vienna-based heirs, represented by Jaromir Czernin’s daughter Sophie Huvos Czernin, say the use of that prerogative amounted to a sale under duress. They argue that Czernin had no option but to sell the painting to Hitler because he was married to a “second-degree Jewish half-breed.” Czernin was later deprived of his estates and was held by the Gestapo for three months, according to a memorandum from Wolf Theiss.

The price paid by Hitler was nevertheless by far the highest he paid for any artwork for his planned museum in Linz, according to Birgit Schwarz, a historian who has published two books about Hitler and his art collection.

Many of the 1,000 works assembled by his adviser on the project, Hans Posse, were looted from Jews in Austria. Others were acquired through forced sales in the Netherlands, Schwarz said in an interview in Vienna. They were stored in Hitler’s Fuehrerbau in Munich, where the Nazi leader would pay regular visits to inspect them.

Salt Mine

He had two Vermeers -- the other was “The Astronomer” seized from the Rothschilds -- yet his preference was for German 19th-century painters like Hans Makart, Arnold Boecklin and Anselm Feuerbach.

By the end of World War II, Hitler’s collection comprised about 4,700 works, yet the museum was never built. In May 1944, the collection was sent to a salt mine at Altaussee for protection. U.S. troops found it there at the end of the war, along with other masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna” sculpture and the “Astronomer.”

“The Art of Painting” was returned to Vienna to be restored to the rightful owner. It has hung in the Kunsthistorisches Museum since 1945. Though Czernin sued for its return, Austria refused to restitute the painting in the 1950s, saying that neither duress nor the reduced purchase price could be proven. He died in 1966.

Handing it back to Czernin’s heirs would be a loss for Austria, which has already restituted prize works from public collections to prewar owners. The government was forced to relinquish five Klimt paintings in 2006 after a court ordered their return to Maria Altmann of California. Austria decided against buying the works because they were too expensive. The works included the 1907 portrait known as “Golden Adele,” which Ronald S. Lauder later bought for $135 million for his Neue Galerie in New York.

Decision Looms

Researchers Susanne Hehenberger and Monika Loescher are working on a provenance report about “The Art of Painting” for the Austrian Commission for Provenance Research. That commission passes its findings to a special council which makes recommendations to the government on whether disputed artworks in public collections should be restituted to heirs.

Sabine Haag, the director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, declined to comment on the details of the case while the research is still under way.

“It is in our interest that the material is very comprehensively examined,” she told a news conference at the opening of the exhibition. “We expect a decision in the course of 2010.”

“Vermeer: The Art of Painting” is showing at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum through April 25. For more information, go to

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Vienna at
© website copyright Central Registry 2023