The painting’s appearance in im Kinsky’s Old Master sale on April 26 was highly controversial with the work having been owned by the Jewish collector Adolphe Schloss, a German who lived in France. It was one of over 300 works, including a significant number of Dutch Golden Age paintings, that were seized from his collection by the Nazi’s ‘Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg’ taskforce in France in 1943.
In around 2000, the picture was sold by an art dealer in Munich and was subsequently acquired by an Austrian art dealer 2003. It has been in the possession of the current private owner since 2004.
Dr. Marianne Hussl-Hörmann of im Kinsky confirmed to ATG that the vendor had acquired the work “in good faith” and was legally entitled to sell the picture under Austrian law.
“We accepted the work in good faith and the withdrawal was the decision of the owner,” she said.
The painting had originally been placed in an im Kinsky auction in April 2016 which led to proceedings to recover the work by Schloss‘ heirs. Legal proceedings began but, with the parties unable to reach a negotiated settlement, an Austrian public prosecutor ruled that the vendor was the legitimate owner and therefore that it could be legally sold.
A note in the im Kinsky catalogue stated that “the heirs of Adolphe Schloss have since raised no further claims in connection with this artwork”. However, since the catalogue was published, the lawyer for the Schloss’ heirs was quoted saying the family were still seeking its return.
Over 170 paintings from the collection are yet to be restored.
With plenty of media attention generated by the painting, the auctioneers received a barrage of abusive emails. “We had some aggressive reactions and it created an insecure situation for private owners,” said Hussl-Hörmann who pointed out that the focus was on “high moral pressure” rather than legal argument.
Co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe Anne Webber told ATG that the missing works in the Schloss collection are well known and the French government has published a book on them.
“It’s surprising the auctioneers wanted to go ahead with the sale given that they knew the work was problematic,” she said.
“This case shows how urgently reform is need to the laws. There’s a huge amount of works still not returned to rightful owners and yet governments, not just Austria, persist with laws to prevent their recovery and allow them to be bought and sold with impunity.”