Last summer Ann and I went to Austria so I could give a lecture at the International SBL meeting. It was mostly just an excuse to go see a beautiful European city and see some friends there and in Prague. Everywhere we went, we saw trinkets, pictures, posters, of the art work of Gustav Klimt especially his portrait, ‘The Kiss’. At the time, we knew nothing about a new movie starring Helen Mirren which had just been filmed in Austria and the U.S. telling the remarkable tale of how Maria Bloch Bauer had through a long legal process sued the Austrian government, and actually recovered the portrait of her aunt stolen by the Nazis which had hung in the Belvedere gallery in Vienna (which now resides in a gallery in New York).
The movie raises some important ethical questions about whether the old notion of ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ is even a good idea, never mind a proper legal principle. After all, theft is theft whether it happened years ago or yesterday. But on the other hand, if all major stolen art and artifacts were suddenly returned to their rightful owners, well…. major museums would have a lot less art and artifacts, especially in Europe.
Vienna is a beautiful city, but with a tragic history when it comes to its Jewish residents like Einstein and Freud…. and Maria. We need to remember the atrocities of the past, as a deterrent to their happening again.