In “Solomonic Solution,” Museum Returns Two Nazi-Looted Artworks to 95-Year-Old Descendant

After nearly 20 years of fighting, the Leopold Museum in Vienna has agreed to return the watercolors

Schiele Paintings
Two watercolors by Egon Schiele, "Self-Portrait With Red Hair And Striped Oversleeves" and “Seated Boy With Folded Hands,” are being returned to the family of their original owner. via Wikimedia Commons

A long-running battle over the ownership of several watercolors made by Austrian painter Egon Schiele has finally been settled. After nearly 20 years of fighting, the Leopold Museum in Vienna has agreed to return two portraits that were stolen from their original owner by the Nazis to his 95-year-old descendant.

“[It is] a very happy day," Austrian culture minister Josef Ostermayer tells the Agence France-Presse (AFP). "It puts an end to years of conflict while allowing both parties to save face."

The two paintings are part of a set of five that once belonged to an Austrian Jewish art collector named Karl Mayländer. One of many art collectors whose works were stolen by the Nazis as they rose to power, Mayländer was deported from Austria in 1941 and later killed during the Holocaust, Christopher D. Shea reports for the New York Times. Since then, the Schiele watercolors fell into the possession of the Leopold Museum, which holds one of the largest single collections of the painter’s artworks.

Because art theft by the Nazis was so widespread before and during World War II, Austria passed the Austrian Art Restitution Law in 1998 that would facilitate the restoration of stolen artworks to their original owners or their heirs. Since then, thousands of artworks have been returned, the AFP reports. Because the law's scope is limited to public institutions, however, Mayländer’s descendant Eva Zirkl has been fighting to recover the five paintings from the privately owned Leopold Museum for almost 20 years.

This isn’t the first time that the Leopold Museum has been involved in a high-profile fight over the ownership of Schiele artworks. In 2010, the museum paid $19 million to the descendants of the Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray in exchange for retaining ownership of Schiele’s painting, “Portrait of Wally.” That same year, a government commission examining Zirkl’s complaint ruled that the museum should return Mayländer’s paintings. But the museum was able to ignore the commission’s ruling and negotiate the terms of the restitution deal because of its private funding, Amah-Rose Abrams reports for artnet News.

Finally, in what Ostermayer told the Associated Press was a “Solomonic solution,” the museum will return two of the watercolors to Zirkl: “Seated boy with folded hands” and “Self-portrait with red hair and striped oversleeves.” The other three will remain in the museum’s collection.

"I am so happy that the heiress can still enjoy these works," Erika Jakubovits, a representative of Austria’s Jewish Community which represented Zirkl in the case, tells the AFP.

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