The Czernins want “their” Vermeer back

September 8th, 2009

The heirs of the prominent Czernin family want the Austrian government to return Vermeer’s Art of Painting which they say was sold by force to Adolf Hitler in 1940, a newspaper said Saturday. Allegedly, Count Jaromir Czernin sold Vermeer’s masterpiece to the Nazi dictator “to protect the life of his family,”  his descendants’ attorney told Der Standard. The painting is housed at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum since 1946.

“We are convinced that the Austrian republic will treat this case in an open and honest manner,” said the family attorney adding that he had filed the request on August 31. The culture ministry confirmed Saturday that it had received Theiss’s request and would transmit it to a committee tasked with issuing opinions on restitutions. The family had already asked for the painting to be returned in the 1960s, but their requests were rejected on the basis that it had been sold voluntarily and at an appropriate price.

Hitler had expressed interest in acquiring the painting as early as 1935 to put it in the Fuehrer Museum which he planned to build in the Austrian city of Linz. During the winter of 1943/1944 Hitler transferred the painting to safety in the tunnels of the salt mines Altaussee. Special service units of the American Army retrieved the Art of Painting and other works of art from the tunnels in spring 1945.

For a detailed write-up about the afterlife of Vermeer’s Art of Painting, see the Washington National Gallery special feature.

2 Responses to “The Czernins want “their” Vermeer back”

  1. ARech

    Some actual information from the Austrian press (mainly Der Standard)

    regarding this serious case:

    In 1998 the journalist Hubertus Czernin (d. 2006), a distant nephew of Count Jaromir Czernin, undertook extensive investigation regarding the entire case of the sale of Vermeer’s Art of Painting to the Führer and the count’s repeated attempts after WWII to claim restitution (published 26th February 1998 in Der Standard). Hubertus Czernin stated that the refusal of the Austrian courts concerning a restitution was legally correct as there is absolutely no evidence in the entire archival material which prove a sale under political pressure on part of the Führer and that Count Jaromir was never really able to prove a menace to his family even regarding the sale. The Count’s letter of quite devoted gratitude to the Führer (see the report from the National Gallery of Art Washington) make the Count’s later statements appearing unreliable and weak.

    In an interview of the Standard with the family’s attorney Andreas Theiss, published on 5th September 2009, the attorney named documents concerning the Count’s family situation that Hubertus Czernin may not have known, otherwise he might have come to another solution. As to Count Jaromir’s letter he called it a “part of a staging. In the course of the purchase contract there had to be written a letter wherein Jaromir Czernin expresses his gratitude”.
    However, Eva Blimlinger, scientific head of the Austrian commission for the research of provenances which studies the origins of artworks, concluded after examining the new expert’s report commissioned by the Czernin-family that it contained “no new documents” from 40 years ago. The commission, whose recommendations are always followed by the ministry, systematically examines the origin of each piece that has entered public collections since the Third Reich.

    Under a restitution law from 1998 regarding artworks stolen by the Nazis after they annexed Austria in 1938, Austria has already returned to their rightful owners some 10,000 works of art, even recently a painting by Viennese master Gustav Klimt to a Jewish family who was robbed of it under the Third Reich. This and other cases of earlier restitutions might have encouraged the heirs of Count Jaromir Czernin to claim again for a restitution of Vermeer’s masterpiece. The case is actually under thorough examination by the commission as well as by the advisory board for restitutions but even regarding the recent restitutions a definite result resp. decision seems nearly impossible to predict and will probably take considerable time and enormous discussion.

    For the interested public the Vienna Municipal Archive provide an online insight and download of its archival material regarding the “Causa Vermeer” under

    (German only).

    A taxation of such an outstanding masterpiece as Vermeer’s Art of Painting is quite difficult and daring. The price of 1.65 million Reichsmark plus 500,000 Reichsmark for taxes once paid to Czernin corresponds approximately to today’s 7.65 million Euro (incl. taxes 9.97 million Euro) which was a considerable sum in that time.
    Christie’s as well as Sotheby’s refused any taxation as they only do it for those artworks auctioned by themselves.

    Roman Herzig (Galerie St. Lucas, Vienna), Austria’s leading expert for the trade with Old Masters, estimates the masterpiece “a multiple of a good Rembrandt”, so between 150 and 200 million Euro. He is quite sure that a potential purchaser could be found and has already “certain ideas”.

    With regard to recently arranged collaborations of prominent European museums with large Arabian cultural centers (I only mention Abu Dhabi and Dakar…) the most horrible imagination that the Art of Painting could leaving Europe forever and disappearing in the Middle East might not be without reason, should the masterpiece really be restituted and put into the market. So the entire art world can only hope for a well-grounded, reasonable decision, and the highly fragile painting can finally find its permanent and badly necessary rest in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.


  2. ajewell

    Why should the Czernin family have any claim when Count Jaromir Czernin tried to sell the painting 2 previous times. The Czernin family got more money than they would have if the 1st sale to the American had been allowed. Yes, this family was tortured by Nazi’s, so were millions of other families. Many families just had their art stolen with no compensation, They don’t deserve it back.

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