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Austrian Panel Rejects Claim for Vermeer Bought by Hitler

"The Art of Painting'' by Johannes Vermeer. The work is the subject of an exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The painting is claimed by the heirs of Jaromir Czernin, who sold it to Hitler in 1940. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum via Bloomberg

March 18 (Bloomberg) -- An Austrian panel today rejected a claim for a Johannes Vermeer painting by the heirs of a man who sold it to Adolf Hitler, saying there was no evidence the sale was forced or that the seller was persecuted.

“The Art of Painting” is the most valuable picture in Vienna’s public collections and the only work by Vermeer in Austria. It’s housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Austria’s art restitution panel threw out the argument by the heirs of Jaromir Czernin that Hitler’s acquisition amounted to a “sale under duress” and should be nullified. The panel instead recommended that Austria keeps the painting.

“There is no reason to assume that the sale of ‘The Art of Painting’ by Jaromir Czernin to Adolf Hitler was an invalid transaction,” the panel said in a statement on its website.

Only about 34 paintings that most scholars attribute to Vermeer exist today. They’re all in museums, including the Louvre, London’s National Gallery, the Metropolitan in New York, Dresden’s Gemaeldegalerie and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

“The Art of Painting,” dated between 1665 and 1668, is considered by many scholars to be the most important of these. It shows the artist in his studio, dressed in a stylish doublet, studying a demure model robed in blue, her eyes downcast. He is beginning to paint a wreath of blue laurel leaves on her head. A thick leather-bound book in one hand and a trumpet in the other reveal her identity as Clio, the Muse of History.

‘Half-Breed’

The heirs said that Czernin, who spent 15 years in lawsuits to get it back after World War II and lost, had no choice but to sell it as his family was under threat. They said his wife, Alix Czernin, was persecuted as a “second-degree ‘Mischling,’” or person with a Jewish grandparent.

The panel said there was no evidence Alix Czernin’s ancestry played a role in the terms of the sale. It also rejected arguments that Czernin, who was a member of the Nazi Party, was targeted because he belonged to the resistance, and said he had wanted to sell the painting since 1933.

Czernin had negotiated with other potential buyers before selling the painting to Hitler in 1940. The price was 1.7 million Reichsmarks, the highest Hitler paid for any work for his planned museum in Linz, Austria. Czernin wrote thanking him for his purchase and wishing him joy with the painting.

“We can conclude that Adolf Hitler did not actively pursue the acquisition of the painting; rather that the sale was actively pushed by Jaromir Czernin’s lawyers,” the panel said.

Two Vermeers

Hitler had two Vermeers -- the other was “The Astronomer,” seized from the Rothschilds -- yet his preference was for German 19th-century painters such as Hans Makart, Arnold Boecklin and Anselm Feuerbach.

Many of the works assembled by his adviser on the project, Hans Posse, were looted from Jews in Austria. Others were acquired through forced sales in the Netherlands. They were stored in Hitler’s Fuehrerbau in Munich, where the Nazi leader would pay regular visits to inspect them.

By the end of World War II, his collection comprised about 4,700 works, yet the Linz museum was never built.

“The Art of Painting” was returned to Vienna after U.S. troops discovered it in a stash of masterpieces intended for the museum in a salt mine.

It has hung in the Kunsthistorisches Museum since 1945.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net

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