27 March 2008
The Austrian federal government wants to expand the criteria for the return of art the Nazis stole from Jews. Culture minister Claudia Schmied has called for a review of a law granting private art institutions an exemption from the seizure and return of looted Holocaust-era items. Dropping the exemption would open up Vienna's Leopold Museum to comprehensive inspection. The museum is state-funded but defined as a private foundation. Current Austrian legislation allows for descendants of Jews who lost art to the Nazis to sue for the return of items that were confiscated between 1938, when Austria was annexed by Germany, and 1945, when World War II ended. The government wants the date range broadened to include 1933, when the Nazis came to power, through 1945.
"I am seeking a clear regulation of the matter of restitution regarding the Leopold Foundation. The debate of the past few weeks has not enhanced the reputation of the republic and especially not that of the Leopold Foundation," Schmied said. She has asked the foundation to agree to a comprehensive survey of the provenance of the museum's entire collection. Property belonging to Jews was confiscated as a matter of course during Nazi rule in Germany and neighboring countries. The debate was revived after the president of Austria’s Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, had said in a television interview that the Leopold Museum should be closed down until the law was changed. The collector Rudolf Leopold disputed the allegations. "In my eyes, the pictures were acquired lawfully," he told the newspaper “Die Presse”. Not one allegation made by Muzicant was true, Leopold said, claiming that “Lots of lies or half truths are being spread."
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