Most often in restitution battles the disagreement boils down to whether a painting was looted, and/or whether it changed hands under circumstances that failed to pass clear title to the predecessor of its current possessor. Then, controversy frequently ensues about the extent to which the possessor resists restitution on grounds other than the title of the painting (jurisdiction, statute of limitations, etc.). Rarer is the type of dispute where the parties don’t even agree about what they’re disagreeing about, like the one brewing between Austria and Poland over a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder that hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559).
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The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
The allegory depicting the struggle between the seasons of excess and penitence is an Old Master of rare quality and exceptional art historical importance. Likewise, its prominence in the KHM, one of the small handful of premier Old Master museums in the world, can scarcely be overstated.
Simply put, the current dispute is over whether the painting that is undeniably in Vienna right now is the same as a painting that was looted from Krakow during the Nazi occupation. According to a research paper by Diana Blonska, the director of the National Museum in Krakow, archival documents show a letter from 1946 written by her predecessor Feliks Kopera:
The Museum suffered major, irretrievable losses at the hands of the wife of the governor of the Kraków Distrikt, Frau Wächter, a Viennese woman aged about 35. […] Items that went missing included paintings such as: Breughel’s The Fight Between Lent and Carnival.
Otto Gustav von Wächter was an Austrian lawyer and Nazi politician. Between 1939 and 1941, he was Gauleiter, or district head, of Krakow. His wife Charlotte Wächter (née Bleckmann) was born in 1908, would have been in her mid-40s, not 30s at the time of their administrative posting in Poland. Nonetheless that seems a plausible enough error after the fact. It should scarcely need mentioning that any Nazi in a position of authority in Poland at that point was in the midst of many of the worst atrocities of the war, which is really saying something.
What is harder to understand is how there is a disagreement at this point. The KHM insists that the painting has been in Austria since the 17th century. One would think that would not be hard to demonstrate given the prominence of the artist and the stature of the museum. There either are, or are not, records prior to 1939 that would show reference to the painting present in Vienna. The painting is included in the KHM’s “Selected Masterpieces” web page (under its German title, Kampf gegen Fasching und Fasten), but no provenance is listed. If the painting was indeed in the Austrian imperial collection, I would expect references to it would not be scarce.
On the other hand, the letter cited by the Polish museum is not definitive. In my own experience, a museum for which I was working had a scare about a possible connection to a plundered Dutch collection, until further research established that the stolen painting was a finished work, and the object under consideration was a sketch of undeniably different size and finish.
One or more of these factors may be at work. Bruegel is known to have painted more than one version, including one well known in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. For now, Poland has indicated that it will more formally demand that Austria research the provenance of the painting.
It will be interesting to see what the KHM provides by way of provenance.