Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Recollecting - Looted Art and Restitution

Outside Vienna's Museum of Applied and Contemporary Arts there is an old car. The car is in a large red container with one open side. It is an exhibit in an exhibtion titled Recollecting: Raub und Restitution / Looted Art and Restitution. The car is a 1931 Fiat 522C. It once belonged to a respected Vienna citizen, a man called Moritz Glückselig. In 1938 the vehicle was confiscated by the authorities. The reason was simple. The owner was Jewish. As a Jew he had no right to posses a car. Did he not know of the Jüdisches Gut wird Volksgut law which said Jewish property is the People's Property? It would appear not.
By 3rd December 1939, another new law regarding motor cars and motor cycles was on the books. This new law prohibited Jews from driving. Not much use having a car then, even such a handsome and prestigious vehicle as a Fiat 522C. And anyway you can't drive a car when you are locked-up in Dachau and Buchenwald, as Mr Glückselig was soon to find out. Once Mr Glückselig was safely ensconced in his new quarters his People's vehicle was disposed of by the VUGESTA, the Secret Police for the Administration of Jewish Relocation Property whose other duties included collecting Reich Flight Tax (this has nothing to do with airline fuel surcharges by the way). Mr Glückselig did not perish in Buchenwald and he was not shipped to Auschwitz. He later surfaced in Argentina where he opened a Deli.
Brigitte Bermann-Fischer was fond of her Camille Pissarro painting Le Quai Malaquais et l'Institut until the VUGESTA knocked on the door and took it away along with all her other property including her books; her favourites being those on Austrian music. In 2002 she found her books in the Austrian National Library. She knew they were hers because they had her name and her ex libris inside their front covers. In 2007, after years of searching, she found her beloved painting. It was in the Kantonalbank in Zürich.
The People's new artworks were distributed by VUGESTA through the Zentralstelle für Denkmalschutz the 'Central Office for the Protection of Monuments'. This latter organization was renamed the Institut für Denkmalpflege the 'Institute for the Care of Monuments' in 1940. Under the Führervorbehalt that is the Führer Priority Proviso of 1938 a man named Hans Posse was appointed to select the works deemed suitable for the proposed Führermuseum in Linz, Upper Austria. The last photo of the Führer in his Berlin Bunker shows him gazing lovingly at a plywood model of the capital of Ostmark and presumably the Führermuseum.
The banker Phillip Gomprez was a wealthy man. He lived in Palais Tedesco (The German Palace) in Vienna's fashionable shopping street, Kärntnerstraße. He fled with his family to Brno (Czech) and made his way from there to Switzerland. His sister Marie died in Brno in 1940, the year the VUGESTA cleared out the Palais Tedesco. Cornelia died in Bern in 1944. Phillip Gomprez passed away in 1948 in Montreux. Ten of his artworks had the honour of being selected for the Linz museum. Art was moved by truck or train in the night. Sometimes in crates, other times under a tarpaulin. Paintings were sold in Switzerland or like two of Gomprez's favourite paintings, a Gauermann and a Spitzweg, they were hidden in tunnels in Austrian salt mines.
In 1945 the US Army created four collecting points in a former NSDAP building in Munich. Here works of art were brought with a view to restoring them to their owners. When the Americans closed the collecting points in 1950 they handed 1,000 artworks to Austria on the understanding that they should try to trace the owners and return the property. The Austrians decided to put the artworks in a safe place. And where is safer than a monastery? The Federal Office for the Care of Monuments situated in the Carthusian Monastery at Mauerbach was just the place. Here work to trace the owners of 8,000 stolen artworks could be carried on in an atmosphere of peace, tranquility and quiet. Or could it? Very few works were returned. Work seemed to go on at a snail's pace or more aptly at the pace of a monk wandering around a quadrangle deep in thought, deep in prayer. In 1996, following the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets "the remaining objects" were auctioned off at the Mauerbach Benefit Sale.
An interesting side to the exhibition is the appearance of lists of appropriated property with official Nazi stamps and signatures and comments regarding the estimated value of articles. A family's photos and other personal effects would be entered on the same typed official lists as artworks and then marked down by a qualified official in the appropriate column in red ink as wertlos, that is to say 'of no worth', before disappearing forever.

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