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Looted Art, Restitution and the Galerie St. Etienne

As the oldest gallery in America specializing in Austrian and German Expressionism, the Galerie St. Etienne has long championed the restitution of art works looted during the Hitler period. Hitler was an avid collector of art he liked, amassing innumerable objects for a planned “Führer Museum” in Linz, Austria. But even art works that Hitler did not like were also frequently stolen from their Jewish owners. After World War II, the Allied forces had to sort through a huge trove of looted art. Daunted by the challenge of tracking down individual owners, the Allies instead returned the works to their countries of origin and left it to the various governments to complete the process. Unfortunately, most of the governments in question applied themselves to the task with a minimum of enthusiasm. Austria was particularly egregious in its postwar treatment of claimants.

 

Because it was declared an "overrun nation" during World War II, Austria was never subjected to the full process of de-Nazification and reparations that the Allies mandated in Germany, and many Austrian citizens--who had genuinely suffered under the Allied bombing and the Russian occupation--hid behind their official status as "victims." Left to their own devices to undo the predations of the Nazi era, the Austrians frequently proved reluctant to return property stolen from Jews and others who had been forced to flee. Those who had lost art might be subjected to a burden of proof that was untenable, given the circumstances of emigration, or if their ownership was legally acknowledged, denied an export license unless they made a partial "donation" to one of the State museums.

 

Otto Kallir, who founded the Galerie St. Etienne in 1939, was intimately familiar with Austria’s treatment of Jewish collectors, both before and after the war. He had been forced to abandon his original Neue Galerie in Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. As a Jew, he had to turn over the gallery to his “Aryan” secretary, Vita Künstler. With a warrant out for his arrest, Kallir and his immediate family were extremely fortunate to get out of Austria alive. He was also fortunate that most of the artists in whom he specialized were considered “degenerate” by Hitler; Kallir was therefore able to export enough works to start his business afresh in New York.

 

Knowing, however, that art was a primary Nazi target, Kallir from the outset made a concerted effort to avoid dealing with anything that might have been stolen. After the war, he found himself in a virtually unique position to help fellow refugees who had lost art to Hitler. Unlike many of these emigrés, Kallir had by this time managed to successfully re-establish himself in his adopted homeland, and he had also resumed professional relations with Austria. Not only was Kallir supremely aware of the injustices perpetrated by Hitler, he was also familiar with the contents of many pre-war Viennese collections of modern art. And he had good contacts within the community of emigré survivors.

 

It is not surprising that many of Kallir's refugee friends came to him for help. The writer Max Roden had lost a large collection, including several Schiele oils, in a warehouse that was allegedly destroyed by bombing. Lea Jaray Bondi, an art dealer, had been forced to sell her Vienna gallery to a Nazi colleague, Friedrich Welz, for a token sum and then to give him, outright, her Schiele painting Portrait of Wally. Alma Mahler Werfel had fled two days after the Anschluss, leaving behind an oil by Edvard Munch and a group of paintings by her father, Emil Jacob Schindler, as temporary loans to the Österreichische Galerie. Mahler's stepfather, Carl Moll (who happened to be a vehement Nazi) retrieved the paintings from the museum shortly after Mahler emigrated in 1938 and then, during the war, sold the Munch back to them. The Schindlers also ended up in the Österreichische Galerie, as a bequest from Moll's son-in-law (likewise a Nazi), who "inherited" them from Moll because, in a mutual suicide pact carried out on the eve of the Allied invasion, the son-in-law was last to die.

 

Kallir tried to help Roden, Bondi, Mahler and other people who had lost art to Hitler negotiate the Austrian legal thicket, as required to reclaim their treasures. He was unsuccessful more often than not. Roden, never sure whether to believe that all his art had really been destroyed, hesitated to make a claim when a Kokoschka watercolor that looked like one of his turned up in an exhibition. "I have neither a receipt nor proof," he noted, "and it is conceivable that the collector is second or third 'generation' and that he made the purchase in good faith. What then? Money and nerves wasted." Leah Bondi, who did not consult a lawyer until her Schiele painting had changed hands, was also confronted by the Austrian law that grants clear title to a good faith purchaser. The Alma Mahler case was the most convoluted of all: with Kallir's help, Mahler actually obtained a court ruling in her favor, only to reach a stalemate on appeal. At one point, the court actually allowed as proof of Moll's good title the fact that the Österreichische Galerie had returned the paintings to him in 1938!

 

For many decades, Otto Kallir and the Galerie St. Etienne were virtually alone in their efforts to help claimants recover art that had been looted during the Nazi period. In recent years, however, a sea change in attitudes toward Nazi looting has made it possible to revisit some of these unresolved cases. Kallir's 1930 Schiele catalogue raisonné has become a key source in documenting prewar ownership of the artist's paintings. And the Galerie St. Etienne's Bondi file was instrumental in the re-opening of the case involving Portrait of Wally following a 1997 Schiele exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Partly as a result of the MoMA case, Austria in 1998 passed a resolution which, under certain circumstances, makes it possible for claimants to recover art from State collections. Pursuant to the new Austrian laws, in 2007 Alma Mahler’s granddaughter was finally able to recover her Munch. In 2010, thanks largely to the records maintained by the Galerie St. Etienne, the Bondi family finally received payment for the painting that had been stolen from Lea more than seventy years earlier.

 

Today, the provenances of art works that passed through the Holocaust are carefully scrutinized, and ongoing research has unearthed a surprising amount of information regarding the fate of collectors and collections that were victimized by the Nazis. At the same time, a dearth of living witnesses and detailed records can make it difficult to conclusively document the circumstances surrounding the disposition of specific art works. One of the great tragedies of the immediate postwar period is that no concerted international effort was then made to track and recover looted art. The recent surge of interest in restitution is, sadly, often a case of too little, too late.