12 April 2016

The Austrian problem with Schloss 91

by Marc Masurovsky

Schloss 91, Portrait of a man, van Helst
"Portrait of a Man”—by van Aelst, stolen from the Schloss family in German-occupied France by French and German agents, catalogued as Schloss 91 by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), had been sent to the Fuhrerbau in Munich in late 1943 where it was stored as part of the future permanent collection of Adolf Hitler’s Linzmuseum. In April 1945, Schloss 91, together with several hundred other works in the Schloss collection which were also stolen and stored at the Fuhrerbau, vanished in the last days of the Nazi era in Munich at the hands of unknown thieves.
Decades later, it resurfaced in a sale at the Kimsky auction house in Vienna, Austria. The catalogue entry clearly indicated that the consignor and the auctioneer were aware that the painting had never been restituted to the Schloss heirs and invited the claimants to contact the auction house in order to reach a “just and fair solution.”
Pre-plunder photo of the Schloss collection.
The Schloss heirs and their lawyer, Antoine Comte, contacted the auction house and were able to get the painting withdrawn from the sale. Hopefully, restitution will ensue with the assistance of the French government and the Schloss family will have another one of its treasured jewels back home to do as they please with it because it will be theirs once again.

Let’s take this story apart now:

A consignor approaches a Viennese auction house with a painting that the consignor knows was stolen and never returned to its rightful owner. This painting has been listed as stolen since 1945, on American and French loss listings. Some of these listings have been available to anyone wishing to consult them for over seventy years.

The Schloss losses are registered as stolen cultural property on the website of Interpol. It has been listed on French government websites. It is on the ERR database since it went public in October 2010. Hence, any high school student can conduct a search on this painting and find it in less than 10 minutes. IT IS STOLEN PROPERTY. However, in a country where good faith is idolized, much like in Switzerland, where it is used as a potent legal shield against the messes created by genocidal policies and their impact on ownership of blood-soaked properties of all sorts. Good faith works when there is no willingness to think beyond the outer edges of one's wallet. Perhaps the desire not to do the right thing is anchored in an ambivalence towards genocidal crimes themselves. Who knows?


The Viennese auction house openly admits in its catalogue that the painting is stolen property and still wishes to proceed with the sale, thereby putting the onus of responsibility on the claimant to come forward and request that the painting should be withdrawn. This is so wrong that it defies comprehension. At first, I thought: Wow! How great can it be for an auction house to publish a looted provenance and be aware of it. That's so cool. But a friend rudely corrected me and say: Are you crazy? Yes, I had a momentary lapse of judgment, so overwhelmed was I by this apparent exercise in transparency. But that is precisely what transparency is all about--a smokescreen, a pipe filled with substances that make you dumb once you inhale the smoke.  The auction house made us believe that it was genuine about its awareness of thefts from the Holocaust era and wished us all to know it.

That acknowledgment actually made the victim responsible for withdrawing the item before the hammer falls and the ownership of the painting changes hands once again, thus transferring title to a looted painting to another possessor.  Hence, it had failed in its duty to report the painting as stolen, to contact the Austrian authorities, the French authorities, who knows, even the Jewish community of Vienna and work out something else besides a self-serving announcement in its catalogue.

Hasn't anyone learned anything since 1998? The official start date, presumably, of the world (re)awakening to the notion that our societies are awash with assets looted between 1933 and 1945 as part of a genocidal undertaking?
Where was the Austrian government in all of this? 

Where were the Austrian police? 

Where were the restitution experts in Vienna, the Jewish community, when the Schloss painting was advertised as being looted cultural property in Vienna?

Yes, all of these parties should think about what it means to be diligent and to advocate for restitution for all victims, Austrian and non-Austrian, because, when they do not, they perpetuate the continuing mess described as “restitution of plundered art”. Yes, it is 2016 and the feeling that we cannot seem to shake off is that the learning curve is as steep as it ever was.

According to Austrian investigators, this painting came from a Munich collector who owns ten, yes ten, Schloss paintings.

The German collector in Munich

The Fuhrerbau theft was the largest art theft in the history of Munich perpetrated against a single entity. Perhaps the largest art theft perpetrated in Germany’s long and rich history. At least 1000 paintings stolen in April 1945. The American liberators did not really pay heed to the theft until a year later when criminal investigators of the Monuments Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) who were the new oversees of the Fuhrerbau converted into the Munich Central Collecting Point, took note of the dozens of art works popping up on the Munich black market which all appeared to come from the same source: the Fuhrerbau. Over the next four years, the Americans and their colleagues in the Munich Criminal Police uncovered somewhere between 70 and 100 paintings from that singular theft, or not more than 10 percent of the haul. The rest vanished into thin air.

What must be done

We now know that ten restitutable paintings belonging to the Schloss family are somewhere in Munich, in the hands of a single collector, who is probably aware of their stolen origin.
The onus now is on the German authorities, the French authorities, the Schloss heirs and their attorney to move and obtain the restitution of that small trove which rightfully belongs to the Schloss heirs.