The Art Restitution Advisory Board in Vienna ruled unanimously not to return Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Kilmt to its heirs and instead it should remain in Austria. A claim by the heirs of Erich Lederer, the original owner of the frieze, have filed for restitution as the work was looted from Lederer by the Nazi’s. “The fresco, 34 metres (112 feet) long, two metres high and weighing several tons, is widely regarded as a central masterpiece of Viennese “Jugendstil” art nouveau from the early 20th century.
“The piece, made for a 1902 exhibition, was meant to be temporary. But it was saved from destruction, sawn into eight pieces, stored in a furniture depot for 12 years and eventually added in 1915 by August Lederer to his extensive collection. Lederer died a few years before Hitler “annexed” Austria in 1938, and the family lost the lot.”
Lederer’s son ended up fleeing to Switzerland during this time, leaving behind his father’s collection. In order to export some of his father’s works, he had to, according to a dubious and now outlawed practice, give up rights to some works in order to export others. While that law had been overturned in 2009, “his descendants say that the frieze should be covered by the same law, arguing Lederer only agreed to sell it to Austria in 1972 because he was unable to take it out of the country. The government panel on Friday rejected that reasoning, citing comments from then-chancellor Bruno Kreisky from 1972 to suggest that export was indeed an option. Weber, the lawyer, called this “completely absurd”.
While it is certain that losing the frieze to a private collector and out of the public view in a Vienna gallery would be a tragedy in an art-education and appreciation sense, it is fairly disgusting for the gallery to say returning the work to its former owners would be “unjustified both legally and morally”. I mean…more unjustified and morally bankrupt than taking advantage of Nazi victims? Sheesh.
The Lederer estate lawyers are investigating other options including trying the case in international and US court systems.