Areas of Focus

Restitution of Works of Art

Mauerbach Holdings – "Heirless" and "Ownerless" Works of Art

A special case within the context of the art restitution issue is the so-called Mauerbach Holdings (Mauerbach-Bestand – named after their storage place at the Carthusian monastery Mauerbach in Lower Austria). This refers to the remainder of works of art transferred to the Republic of Austria by the Allies in 1955 on condition that the Republic of Austria searches for the rightful owners and restitutes the artworks to them. However, Austria met this condition only hesitantly and inadequately by issuing two Acts on the Determination of Ownership of Works of Art and Cultural Assets (Kunst- und Kulturgutbereinigungsgesetze) in 1969 (Federal Law Gazette 294/1969) and 1986 (Federal Law Gazette 2/1986). Andrew Dekker calls attention to this situation in his critical December 1984 article "Legacy of Shame" in the publication Artnews.

In 1995 the Republic of Austria thought that it could close the matter by transferring the Mauerbach Holdings to the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Austria (Bundesverband der Israelitischen Kultusgemeinden Österreichs), which in the performance of its relevant statutory mandate (Federal Law Gazette 515/1995) had the works of art sold in an auction for the benefit of needy victims of the Nazi regime, which was organized by Christie’s at the Museum for Applied Art (MAK) in October 1996.

Figure 1 / Scan of the catalogue

Twelve percent of the net proceeds from the auction went to the three organizations for political victims of National-Socialist persecution Holocaustproviding assistance to needy members. The remaining amount was paid into the Mauerbach Fund, which disbursed the monies to needy Jewish victims of National-Socialist persecution within and outside of Austria.

The problem in connection with the collective auction arose several years later when provenance research began to establish itself as the new auxiliary science or discipline. The inscriptions, depot notes and numbers written on the backs of several paintings in the Mauerbach Holdings, as well as efforts to open up and make the corresponding holdings in Austrian archives (Federal Office for the Care of Monuments, Austrian State Archives) available would have made it possible to identify several of the former owners.

It is not least against the backdrop of these findings that the IKG Vienna advocates the exhaustive utilization of all of the available research and investigative possibilities for supposed "heirless" and "ownerless" works of art. The auctioning off of such artworks for collective purposes – the Art Restitution Act empowers the competent federal minister to transfer those objects whose ownership can no longer be established to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for victims of National-Socialist for utilization – can only represent an option of last resort.