Family seeks return of Vermeer art sold to Hitler

Thu Sep 10, 2009 12:51pm EDT
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By Petra Spescha

VIENNA (Reuters Life!) - Heirs of a prominent Austrian family are seeking the return of Vermeer masterpiece "The Art of Painting" sold under duress to Adolf Hitler during World War Two and now a jewel of Vienna's art history museum.

A lawyer for the Czernin family said it had written to Austria's education, culture and art ministry asking for the work, valued at 100 million euros ($146 million), to be given back after employing a researcher to determine its provenance.

The Czernin family will take no legal action for now, pending a response from the ministry, attorney Alexander Theiss said. A ministry spokesman said a provenance research commission was studying the matter, declining further comment.

"We are fully confident that the Republic of Austria will carry out an open, fair and transparent proceeding, unlike in the 1960s," he told Reuters.

He said restitution claims were turned down then on the grounds that Hitler had legitimately paid for the painting he wanted for his "Fuehrer" museum in Linz, near his hometown.

In 1940, Count Jaromir Czernin, who had a wife of Jewish origin, sold the painting to the Austrian-born Nazi dictator for one million reichsmarks -- or about 3.5 million euros -- to save the life of his family, said Theiss.

Czernin, a brother-in-law of former Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg who was ousted in the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, was allowed to sell the Vermeer only to Hitler, Theiss said.

"There are conversation records showing that the family had to hand over the painting or something dreadful would happen to them," he said.   Continued...