On Monday, France’s Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot announced that the French government will take steps to return a painting by Gustav Klimt to the heirs of its owner more than 80 years after it was sold under duress during World War II.
The painting’s original Austrian-Jewish owner, Nora Stiasny, was killed in a concentration camp in 1942. She was forced to sell Klimt’s Rosiers sous les arbres (Roses Under the Trees), an abstracted landscape featuring an apple tree, following the Nazi regime’s annexation of Austria in 1938. A decade prior, Stiasny inherited the painting from her aunt and uncle, the Austrian industrialists and art collectors Viktor and Paula Zuckerkandl, who purchased the work in 1911 and were supporters of Klimt and Josef Hoffmann. Upon Viktor Zuckerkandl’s death in 1927, seven paintings by Klimt, including six landscapes and one portrait of his wife (which was destroyed in 1942), were left in his estate.
Under French law, the restitution of the Klimt painting cannot go in to affect immediately. In order to implement the return of the work to the heirs of Nora Stiasny, the French government is required to submit a bill that would authorize the release of the work from the national collection, on the basis that a theft in 1938 from its original owner took place.
The painting has been in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection since in 1980, when it was acquired by the state via auction from Zurich’s Nathan Peter Gallery, a sale approved by the Artistic Council of National Museum upon the museum’s founding. Prior to its acquisition to the Paris museum, Philipp Häusler, the short-term director of the Vienna School of Applied Arts and a Nazi party member, purchased it from Stiasny in 1938 for 400 RM, a fraction of its 5,000 RM value. He later smuggled it into Frankfurt and held it until his death in 1966.
The work was first exhibited in 1908 at the Kunstschau in Vienna and later at the International Exhibition in Venice in 2011. Before its sale to Häusler, it was showcased in 1928 at the Neue Galerie in Vienna, in an exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of Klimt’s death.
“This decision to return a major artwork from the public collections illustrates our commitment to justice and to reparation for the looted families,” Bachelot said. The steps toward restituting the Klimt are part of a larger initiative in France dedicated to researching cultural property looted between 1933 and 1945.
The attempt to give back Rosiers sous les arbres grew out of another restitution effort involving a Klimt. In 2001, Pommier II was returned to to the Stiasny heirs from Austria’s Belvedere gallery. In 2017, the Austrian government committee in charge of provenance research, which commissioned Belvedere researcher Monika Mayer and Klimt expert Tobias Natter to investigate the work’s record, concluded that there had been an error in the original restitution of the work. It was then discovered that the Rosiers sous les arbres had been sold under duress.