Austrian panel rules against returning Gustav Klimt fresco to Jewish heirs

“Beethoven Frieze” by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

( An Austrian panel has ruled that the famous fresco “Beethoven Frieze” by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt should not be returned to the heirs of a Jewish art collector, who claim the painting belongs to them.

The Frieze fresco, painted in 1902, shows Vienna’s Secession Building for the Beethoven Exhibition of that time. Originally, Carl Reinighaus bought the frieze, but in 1915 he sold it to a Jew named August Lederer, who was a friend of Klimt. After losing the painting to the Nazis, the Lederer family, whose chief heir is currently August's son Erich Lederer, received the painting back after World War II. 

Although August Lederer sold the piece in the 1970s, his heirs allege that he was forced to do so due to a government ban on exports after numerous requests for a waiver. The Austrian government, which had purchased the fresco for 15 million schillings ($750,000 at the time), says that although Lederer’s export waiver request had been pending since 1967, the government never actually threatened him with a ban. 

The panel that denied the heirs' request issued only a recommendation, which is not legally binding. Since the decision cannot be appealed, the case could be taken to the European Court of Human Rights, or even to the U.S since one of the 11 heirs is American, reported the Wall Street Journal. 

The case also echoes an upcoming film—“Woman in Gold,” starring Ryan Reynolds and Hellen Mirren—that tells the story of a woman’s 10-year battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to reclaim another work by Gustav Klimt that had belonged to her family. In that case, the family lost the painting to the Nazis and was never able to regain it.

Posted on March 6, 2015 .