Hours before an Old Master painting auction was set to take place at the Vienna auction house Im Kinsky, the owner of a Nazi-looted work withdrew a painting after receiving threats, Nina Siegal of the New York Times reports. The heirs of the family it was stolen from had previously tried to halt the sale, but were unsuccessful.
Ernst Ploil, director and chief executive of Im Kinsky, said that the auction house had received dozens of threatening e-mails “accusing us of being Nazis and of collaborating with Hitler.” He also said that the owner of the work pulled the oil painting due to public pressure, but not for moral reasons.
Despite the provenance of Bartholomeus van der Helst’s Portrait of a Man, 1647—which is recognized as a stolen work by both Im Kinsky and Interpol—the owner was able to legally put it up for auction. According to Austrian law, as long as the work was purchased in good faith, the buyer remains the rightful owner of the piece, even after learning that it is stolen property.
The descendants of Adolphe Schloss, a German Jewish collector who acquired a large collection of Dutch golden age works, protested the sale, demanding that the canvas be returned to them. They had, unsuccessfully, tried to prevent it from being sold through legal channels. The case has prompted widespread criticism of the country’s laws regarding works that were seized by the Nazis during World War II.
Antoine Comte, the lawyer representing Schloss’s heirs, said, “Maybe it’s not a legal problem in Austria, but it’s becoming a real moral problem for them,” Mr. Comte said. “It’s time that Austria understand that these things cannot be admitted as being possible anymore today. It’s appalling.”