France to restore Nazi-looted Klimt painting to heirs of its Jewish collector

After 80 years, the French government will return a Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) painting to its rightful owners – the heirs of a Jewish family who were forced to sell the piece under duress during the Nazi era.

We know that the persecution of the Jews has taken many forms. Very often, before the methodical elimination, before the extermination, there were thefts of the goods of the Jews, ordered to abandon everything,” explained French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot.

Painted by Klimt in 1905, ‘Rosiers sous les Arbres’ (Rose Bushes Under the Trees) was acquired by Austrian industrialist and art collector Viktor Zuckerkandl in 1911. His niece, Nora Stiasny, inherited the painting following his death at a time when the prominent Jewish family were living in Purkersdorf, near Vienna. But by 1938, Austria had been annexed by the Nazis who gradually confiscated Nora’s property and forced her to sell the Klimt painting.

Nora and her mother, Amalie, were deported in 1942 to a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and were killed the same year. Speaking about the impact of the Holocaust, in which some six million Jews across German-occupied Europe were murdered, Bachelot said “Rose Bushes under the Trees is a testament to the lives that a criminal will had stubbornly sought to eliminate.”

Since 1980 the Klimt painting has been displayed in one of France’s leading museums, the Musée d’Orsay. The French state had purchased the painting, which is the only Klimt piece owned by France, without knowing its full provenance. Klimt was one of the most renowned members of the Vienna Secession movement and is perhaps best known for painting ‘The Kiss’.

President of the Musée d’Orsay, Laurence des Cars, stated “removing such an important painting from the national collections is a heavy decision, which honours our collective commitment to the memory of the victims of Nazi barbarism.

The rightful owners filed a restitution case for the oil painting in 2019, which was the same year France’s Ministry of Culture launched an initiative to identify stolen works in its collections. It took a while for the case to proceed due to the French government needing to pass a bill to authorise the release of the painting from one of its national museums.

The decision we’ve taken is of course a difficult one. It results in taking a masterpiece out of the national collections which is the only painting by Gustav Klimt which France owned,” remarked Bachelot. “But this decision is necessary, essential. Eighty-three years after the forced sale of this painting by Nora Stiasny, this is the accomplishment of an act of justice.”

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