Vienna's Jewish Museum
Vienna's Jewish Museum. Photo by Gryffindor, Wikipedia
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Vienna’s Jewish Museum holds hundreds of books and works of art that may have been stolen by Nazis, an Austrian newspaper reported Saturday.

A screening program that started in 2007, years after other Austrian museums began combing their collections for works taken from their rightful owners, has determined that about 500 works of art and 900 books are of dubious origin, Der Standard said.

It cited in particular paintings by Jehudo Epstein, who, while abroad in 1936, entrusted 172 works to industrialist Bernhard Altmann for safekeeping. Altmann fled the country in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and his factory was “Aryanized,” the paper said. The Nazis confiscated the paintings and in some cases erased the signature of the artist.

Epstein died in South Africa in 1945. After 1947, his widow tried in vain to track down the paintings, some of which were later sold at auction by Dorotheum, a huge Austrian auction house, the paper said. One of them, “Madchen mit blonden Zopfen” ‏(The Girl With Blonde Braids‏), was purchased by gallery owner and restaurateur Kurt Kalb.

Several others are now in the Jewish Museum’s collection, the paper said, citing information it got from the museum after many requests.

Danielle Spera, who became museum director in 2010, told the paper that despite tight finances, in December 2011 it hired a part-time researcher to check the provenances of its artworks.

“Anything that was acquired illegally ought to be returned. There will not be a hint of hesitation,” Spera told the paper.

Der Standard said leaders of Austria’s Jewish community whose collections are on permanent loan to the municipal museum voted in October to return an Epstein painting called “Italienische Landschaft” ‏(Italian Landscape‏) and a work in a separate museum to the painter’s heirs, who now live in England. That transfer could take place as early as this month, it said.

The Jewish Museum contains, among other works, the Jewish community’s own collection, bequeathed in 1992; a Max Berger collection bought by the city in 1988; the Sussmann collection, on loan since 1992, and donations from a collection by Martin Schlaff.

Other Austrian museums have already had to grapple with the issue of returning looted art to the proper owners.

A painting by Egon Schiele, which was seized by the Nazis on the eve of World War II, was shown in public for the first time in more than a decade last year after the Leopold Museum reached a settlement with claimants that cost millions of dollars.

The move over the past several years to return stolen artwork is but a drop in the bucket, art sources note. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis systematically stole an estimated 670,000 works throughout Europe, including works by major artists like Monet and Chagall. Most have never been returned to their rightful owners or heirs. Some are displayed in museums all over the world, including in Israel.

Over the past few decades there has been an international effort to locate the works’ rightful owners or heirs and return them. Dozens of countries have signed an international convention to this effect, and many have established official bodies to handle such cases.