Austria to Return Art Confiscated by Nazis

Austria is beginning to return 1,170 works of art confiscated from Central European Jews by the Nazis during World War II, a spokesman for the Finance Ministry confirmed here last week.

Fifteen paintings, several drawings and art objects as well as a number of books with satisfactorily documented ownership will be yielded within the next several weeks.

They are part of a collection that includes 700 paintings, 250 drawings, several collections of porcelain, arms and coins, as well as a large number of theater literature. It is stored in Mauerbach, a former monastery near Vienna.

Almost all of the paintings have been claimed, but not with documentation good enough for the authorities to hand them over immediately. In cases of multiple claims, a civil court judge will decide ownership.

The Mauerbach artworks were handed over to the Austrian government by the U.S. Army in 1952, after the army had failed to find the rightful owners.

The paintings and objects had been stolen by Nazi officials and incorporated in various public collections of the time, among them the Museum of Linz and the collection of the Reichsstatthalter. Some ended up in the bomb-proof shelters of the salt mines in Altaussee, where they were found by U.S. troops in 1945.

The Austrians returned some 10,000 objects, while about 8,000 remained unclaimed. In 1969, a list of these remaining artworks was sent to Austrian embassies around the world, but according to crities –it was not well publicized.

But this claiming period, which lasted until 1972, was not successful. Now the Austrian Finance Ministry, which is in charge of the issue, seems determined to end the affair.

In 1985, following pressure from international press coverage triggered by a story in the New York-based Art News magazine, the Austrians again sought to return the artworks.

The Austrian parliament mandated in 1985 that all remaining artworks be included on lists to be publicized by Jewish media around the world.

Dr. Israel Miller, executive director of the Committee of Jewish Claims on Austria, said recently, “The process is moving along. It isn’t a situation where people are sitting on their hands.”

Proving one’s own or family’s ownership of an artwork is difficult. Almost none of the claimants were able to take receipts, photographs or other documentation when they fled Austria in order to escape the concentration camps.

Some 370 persons claimed one or more artworks through September 1986, when the claiming period ended. The legal procedures might take two more years, a spokesman in the Finance Ministry estimated.

“We will try to be not too strict,” said an official dealing with the matter.

All unclaimed artworks will be auctioned, the proceeds to be given to welfare organizations caring for Nazi victims.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said large auction houses advised not to sell unclaimed, less interesting objects until the claimed piece were distributed in order to hold one large auction that would likely get better prices.

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