Austria to keep Nazi-looted Klimt masterpiece

A leading panel of experts recommended on Friday that Austria not return one of the country's most treasured artworks to the descendants of its Jewish former owners robbed by the Nazis.

Austria to keep Nazi-looted Klimt masterpiece
The Beethoven Frieze in the Vienna Secession gallery. Photo: APA/Schlager

The Art Restitution Advisory Board "recommended unanimously… not to return the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt to the heirs of Erich Lederer," panel chair Clemens Jabloner told journalists.

The fresco, 34 metres (112-feet) long, two metres high and weighing several tons, is widely regarded as a central masterpiece of Viennese Jugendstil art nouveau from the early 20th century. 

Klimt painted it directly onto the walls of Vienna's Succession gallery in 1902, and in 1915 it was sold to a Jewish industrialist, August Lederer. 

However, the Nazis confiscated the frieze from the Lederer family in 1938.

After the end of World War II in 1945 Austria returned it to the family heir Erich Lederer, living in Switzerland, who then sold it to the Austrian Republic in 1972.

His descendants say however that Lederer sold it under pressure because Austria refused to allow him to take the frieze out of the country, and that the reported sale price of $750,000 (€680,000) was too low.

They launched a claim for its return in 2013.

On Friday Clemens Jabloner said that it was "not the case that the export procedure was used as a tool to force Lederer into an agreement". 

But Marc Weber, a lawyer from Swiss law firm Lanter Rechtsanwälte representing some of the heirs, told AFP that the panel had "muddled up the facts."

"We are now considering taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights and/or to the United States," Weber said.

Since Austria passed a law in the 1990s covering the restitution of vast numbers of artworks stolen by the Nazis, thousands have been returned – including major works worth millions of euros.

Since 1986 Klimt's Beethoven Frieze has been on display in a specially built basement in Vienna's Secession Building, the work's original home, where it attracts hoards of visitors.

The gallery, itself a Jugendstil masterpiece topped by a golden dome, says that returning it would be "unjustified both legally and morally" and that leaving the frieze in its current place "maintains the art-historical connection between building and work". 

The final decision on whether to return the work falls to Culture Minister Josef Ostermayer, who said on Friday that he would stick to the panel's recommendation, as Vienna has done in the past.

"Losing (the frieze) … would of course have been a loss for Austria as a place for art and culture," Ostermayer told the Austrian Press Agency.

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Austrian rapper arrested over neo-Nazi songs

Austrian authorities said Tuesday they have arrested a rapper accused of broadcasting neo-Nazi songs, one of which was used by the man behind a deadly anti-Semitic attack in Germany.

Austrian rapper arrested over neo-Nazi songs
Austrian police officers patrol at the house where Adolf Hitler was born during the anti-Nazi protest in Braunau Am Inn, Austria on April 18, 2015. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

“The suspect has been arrested on orders of the Vienna prosecutors” and transferred to prison after a search of his home, said an interior ministry statement.

Police seized a mixing desk, hard discs, weapons, a military flag from the Third Reich era and other Nazi objects during their search.

Austrian intelligence officers had been trying for months to unmask the rapper, who went by the pseudonym Mr Bond and had been posting to neo-Nazi forums since 2016.

The suspect, who comes from the southern region of Carinthia, has been detained for allegedly producing and broadcasting Nazi ideas and incitement to hatred.

“The words of his songs glorify National Socialism (Nazism) and are anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic,” said the interior ministry statement.

One of his tracks was used as the sound track during the October 2019 attack outside a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle.

In posts to online forums based in the United States, the rapper compared the man behind the 2019 Christchurch shootings that killed 51 people at a New Zealand mosque to a saint, and translated his racist manifesto into German.

Last September, an investigation by Austrian daily Der Standard and Germany's public broadcaster ARD said that the musician had been calling on members of neo-Nazi online forums and chat groups to carry out terrorist attacks for several years.

They also reported that his music was used as the soundtrack to the live-streamed attack in Halle, when a man shot dead two people after a failed attempt to storm the synagogue.

During his trial last year for the attack, 28-year-old Stephan Balliet said he had picked the music as a “commentary on the act”. In December, a German court jailed him for life.

“The fight against far-right extremism is our historical responsibility,” Austria's Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said Tuesday.

Promoting Nazi ideology is a criminal offence in Austria, which was the birth place of Adolph Hitler.