The Rothschild Affair: A Test of Austria’s Conscience

The Wall Street Journal, 6 July 1999, p. A13.

“The Rothschild Affair: A Test of Austria’s Conscience,” The Wall Street Journal, July 6, 1999, p. A13.

Rothschild treasures leave Austrian museums and head for the auction block

by Jason Edward Kaufman

More than half a century after Austrian Jews were systematically stripped of their wealth by the Nazis most remain uncompensated for their losses. In the last several years, however, the Austrian government has taken preliminary steps to rectify what has aptly been dubbed “a legacy of shame.” The most prominent illustration of the policy shift came in February of this year, when it was announced that the government would return to the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family some 250 artworks long held by Austrian museums — to date the most significant restitution by a national government of artworks misappropriated during the WWII era. The Rothschild case offers the most dramatic indication not only of the extent of the Austrian reversal, but also of the injustices that remain to be made right.

On July 8, Christie’s London will offer 224 items from the Austrian Rothschilds’ ancestral collections, an eclectic trove of high quality French furniture and clocks, old master paintings, illuminated manuscripts, porcelains, armor, and assorted musical and scientific instruments together expected to bring more than £20 million ($30 million). The consignor is Baroness Bettina Rothschild Looram, eldest surviving descendant of Barons Alphonse and Louis Rothschild, heirs to earlier generations that established the family’s banking interests in Austria.

In March of 1938, within days of the anschluss, squads of Nazis and Austrian museum personnel emptied the Rothschild brothers’ Viennese palaces. From Alphonse’s residence on Theresianumgasse the plunderers took 3,444 items, and from Louis’ mansion on Eugenstrasse another 919 pieces (plus 189 coins and medals). They brought the spoils to the Hofburg palace, the Nazis’ Zentraldepot for confiscated art. Everything was meticulously inventoried, and the most important works earmarked for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, the Austrian town of his birth. Lesser pieces went directly into Viennese museums, and others, mainly porcelains, were fenced at the state-owned auction house, the Dorotheum.

As the war proceeded, the collection was transferred to several locations outside Vienna, and by 1944 had been cached in the Alt Aussee salt mines near Salzburg, safe from Allied bombs. The following year the American 42nd Division captured the trove, and the Allies authorized Austria to handle restitution of Austrian property.

Few Jews were left to reclaim their possessions at the end of the war. Some 65,000, roughly a third of Austrian Jewry, had been killed in the Holocaust, and the rest were in exile. Alphonse Rothschild, who was abroad when the Nazis arrived in Vienna, had died in 1943. And Louis, who had been imprisoned by the Gestapo and ransomed by his family, had taken up residence in New York. But Alphonse’s widow Clarice — Baroness Looram’s mother — was determined to recover her property.

In spring of 1947 she convinced the Americans to admit her into the salt mines where she found her family’s collection in crates neatly labeled “AR” for Alphonse Rothschild and “LR” for Louis. Though most remained in tact, a list of missing items includes works by Fragonard, Boucher, Guardi, Hals, Rubens and Romney among others. She was given custody of her possessions. Taking them out of the country was another matter.


Wresting treasures from exiled Jews


Perhaps even more than most Jews, the Rothschilds had no desire to remain in Austria. “My uncle’s house had been used by [Adolf] Eichmann…and our house was Gestapo headquarters,” explains Baroness Looram, “so nobody really wanted to move back in there. The idea,” she says, “was to sell and get out.” But lingering anti-Semitism and a law prohibiting the free export of culturally significant goods impeded their flight. The ban was instituted immediately after WWI, during the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Rather than waive the regulation for war victims, the Austrians employed it as a device to pry art from exiled Jews: with few exceptions, export licenses were provided only in exchange for “donations” to Austrian museums.

The Rothschilds had little choice but to comply with the demands of zealous museum directors. “The only assets we had at that point were these works of art,” Baroness Looram explains. “My mother and uncle Louis were pretty desperate.” Between 1947 and 1950, their lawyers signed a series of contracts that enabled them to ship the bulk of the restituted collection to New York where Clarice had taken up residence at 1040 Park Avenue and Louis in The Carlysle. Through the New York dealers Rosenberg & Stiebel a great many Rothschild treasures eventually found their way into museums and private collections throughout the US and Europe.

But as a result of the coercion policy some 250 choice objects entered Austrian museums, including the Kunsthistorisches (11 paintings, 74 musical instruments, as well as coins and medals, sculptures, scientific instruments, clocks, and armor), the Albertina (30 works on paper), the Museum of Applied Art (43 pieces of furniture and carpets), the City Museum of Vienna (6 objects) the Gallery Belvedere (3 paintings, 2 watercolors, and 3 sculptures), the Military Museum (6 objects), the National Library (2 manuscripts), and others in the provinces.

“The labels would say ‘dedicated by Clarice Rothschild in memory of Alphonse Rothschild’,” Baroness Looram recalls, “and on Louis’ paintings it said ‘dedicated by Louis Rothschild’.” Even The Grove Dictionary of Art was duped by the euphemistic credits, reporting in its new edition that the Kunsthistorisches Museum “received generous collections from Baronne Alphonse,” oblivious to the dubious nature of his “gifts”.

For half a century the heirs sought to recover the extorted artworks, but civil servants pointed to the “legitimate” quid-pro-quo contracts. “You can’t fight city hall, can you?” asks Baroness Looram, who admits, “It never occurred to me in a million years that we’d ever get it back.” Gradually the climate began to thaw as international Jewish organizations began to apply heat.


A bit of justice


In 1996, the Austrians turned over to Jewish groups 8,000 unclaimed artworks that had languished for four decades in a monastery near Vienna. An auction by Christie’s raised $14.5 million for victims of the Holocaust. In January 1998, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau impounded two canvases by Egon Schiele on loan from a government-run Austrian foundation to The Museum of Modern Art, but claimed by the American descendants of Austrian Jews to whom they once belonged. The affair triggered a series of exposes on WWII-related issues by Hubertus Czernin and Tomas Trenkler in the Viennese daily Der Standard. Within 12 months the Austrian Parliament approved legislation to return Jewish property from Federal museums, and in February 1999 agreed to begin the process with the well-documented Rothschild collection.

“We show a bit of justice with these restitutions,” proclaimed education and culture minister Elisabeth Gehrer, who characterized the gesture as the first step in fashioning “the Republic’s new self-image.” But only seven years after former Nazi Kurt Waldheim left office as president, with neo-Fascist Joerg Haider continuing to command a substantial portion of the electorate, it is unclear whether the Rothschild restitution represents a sea change in the Austrian psyche or merely a convenient exercise in political damage control — a way to avoid the kind of censure sustained by the Swiss when it was revealed that they served as bankers to the Third Reich and appropriated billions of dollars of war victims’ assets.

The sincerity of the Austrian effort to atone for the country’s long-denied complicity with the Nazis will be tested in coming months as hopeful claimants come forward to demand reparations. An Austrian commission established to probe the Federal museums and library expropriations of Jewish property has compiled an index of thousands of tainted items — more than 900 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum alone — and provincial and municipal authorities are conducting similar investigations. It remains to be seen how expeditiously these works can be returned to the heirs of the collectors from whom they were taken, once-prominent Austrians like industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and banker Alphonse Thorsch. Based on the Rothschild case, experts in Vienna predict restitutions not only of art, but also of billions of dollars worth of “Aryanized” real estate, businesses, gold, and other property, as well as compensation for slave labor. As one of the claimants to the two Schiele paintings puts it, ”Austria has finally been dragged into the klieg lights.”

Jason Edward Kaufman



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Us

Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


1987 (1)

2016 (289)

2017 (7)

2019 (2)

2020 (1)

2021 (4)

Join our Mailing list!