The Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board has announced that Beethoven Frieze, 1902, a masterpiece by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, will not be returned to the heirs of its original Jewish owner. Austrian law was changed in 2009 to allow for claims for restitution based on property that was sold at a discount because of export bans. The decision is seen as the first test of that amendment.
The 34-metre long Beethoven Frieze was painted onto the walls of Vienna’s Secession Building in homage to the German composer’s Ninth Symphony. Although intended as an ephemeral work to last only for the duration of a Beethoven Exhibition, it ended up being preserved for a Klimt retrospective that was being planned. Today it is seen as paramount significance to his career, marking the beginning of the artist’s ‘golden period’.
In 1903 it was removed from the walls and later sold to the Lederer family. The work was then seized when the family fled to Switzerland after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. The fresco was restored to Erich Lederer after the war, but the family’s lawyers are saying that he was then forced to sell it to the Austrian state at a discount in order to be allowed to export his many other artworks.
Lederer eventually sold it for $750,000 in 1972 and the work has been on public display in Vienna’s Secession Building since 1986.
However, the Secession museum has successfully convinced the Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board that Lederer voluntarily negotiated the price, and that the Austrian government actually paid for the frieze’s restoration. They said there was no close “temporal or causal link between the restitution of the work in 1946, the export ban proceedings and the [government’s] acquisition of the frieze in 1972”.
The advisory board does not have enforcing powers, but the government usually acts on its recommendations. Speaking to the BBC, the head of the panel, Clemens Jabloner, denied their decision would damage Austria’s reputation when it came to returning looted art.
“Restitution of art plays an important role because… there were very important collectors of art so Austria has a lot to do… Austria is not the only state with such a situation – but it is the only state with a legal basis for returning those artefacts.”