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Austria Criticized for Restituting Klimt Painting to Wrong Family

Gustav Klimt’s Apple Tree II, 1916, was in the collection of Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery until the Austrian government restituted the work to the wrong family in 2001. The case—as confusing logistically as it is legally—resurfaced recently when the painting in question was scheduled to go on view at the Leopold Museum in Vienna for the exhibition “Gustav Klimt: Artist of the Century,” reports the Art Newspaper.

On June 22, the day of the opening, the Leopold pulled the painting and issued the following statement: “Seeing as this artwork is currently the subject of a dispute between several people and institutions, which has not yet been resolved, the Leopold Museum has decided not to show the painting. The dispute was caused by the fact that while the painting was restituted by the Republic of Austria eighteen years ago, it has recently transpired that a mistake was made with the decision to return this work.”

Apple Tree II belonged to Serena Lederer, a prominent Jewish collector whose collection was seized by Nazis following Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938; Lederer died in 1943. It didn’t reappear in the public eye until 1961, when the Belvedere Gallery received a trove of Nazi-looted paintings following the death of former Nazi party member and propaganda film director Gustav Ucicky. Some believe the Lederer family sold the painting to Ucicky; others believe he was an illegitimate child of Klimt’s. A journalist brought attention to the unclear provenance of Apple Tree II in 2001, spurring the Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board to investigate the matter.

At that time, the board ruled that Apple Tree II had belonged not to Lederer, but to Nora Stiasny, a niece of Austrian industrialist Viktor Zuckerkandl. In fact, Stiasny had been the owner of another Klimt tree painting, Rosebushes under Trees, 1905. Stiasny had inherited the painting from her uncle in 1927 and sold the painting to a Nazi official and former childhood friend in an attempt to fund an escape from Austria. Stiasny died in a concentration camp in Belzec, Poland, in 1942. The Nazi official gifted Rosebushes under Trees to a girlfriend, who sold it in 1980 to the Musée d’Orsay, where it now hangs. 

The mix-up over the Klimt paintings led Austria to return Apple Tree II to Stiasny’s surviving family member, Hermine Müller-Hoffman, whose nephew, Viktor Hoffman, sold the picture for around $22.5 million. The buyer of the work, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, established by Bernard Arnault, collector and CEO of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, had not been publicly known until the institution loaned the painting to the Leopold Museum for the exhibition. The work has since been returned to Arnault’s foundation.

While the case is not new—experts say the mistake has been an “open secret” for years—a prosecutor representing the Austrian government rejected the Lederer family’s claims to Apple Tree II last year, and the Austrian government now is reviewing the legal implications of returning the painting to the wrong family. Neither Arnault’s foundation nor the Lederer family has issued a comment on the case.