VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria is ready to return one of the country's most famous artworks to heirs of its former owner if a review supports their claim that he was forced to sell it at a knock-down price, the government said on Wednesday.
The case of Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze will test Austria's laws on restitution of looted art. It centers on the Lederer family, Jews who fled to Switzerland when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and the family's extensive art collection was seized.
The collection included the monumental 1902 frieze, paying homage to the German composer's Ninth Symphony and now housed in a climate-controlled room at Vienna's Secession museum.
Erich Lederer got the mammoth work back after the war but with a hitch: Austria would let him export his other artworks only if he sold the frieze to the state at a discount price, family lawyer Marc Weber said.
The New York Times reported that he agreed to sell the frieze to the government in 1973 for $750,000, half of its estimated worth at the time, according to an evaluation by fine art auctioneer Christie's. Weber confirmed the report.
An education, arts and culture ministry spokesman said an commission of researchers from major museums would look into the case and submit its findings to a restitution advisory panel.
That panel would make a recommendation to the culture minister, who would make a final decision. The spokesman did not say how long the case might last or judge its possible outcome.
"This is certainly a valuable work but that makes no difference to the process," spokesman Raimund Lang said.
He declined to describe the case as a potential loss for the country. "If the ownership is not legal then it will be returned. It is not an issue."
The Austrian government, which returned six works by Klimt's near contemporary Egon Schiele to Erich Lederer's heirs in 1999, amended its restitution law in 2009 to apply to property that was sold at a discount because of the export ban.
Weber said a dozen heirs were scattered around the world. He represented those in Switzerland. It remained to be seen what would happen to the work should the family win its demand.
Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by John Stonestreet