Who Owned 'Vexed Man' Sculpture During WWII? Austrian Dispute Hits Getty Museum

Documents sent to the public prosecutor’s office in Vienna suggest that it’s not entirely clear who owned the work before and during the Nazi regime.

'The Vexed Man' by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783).
Getty Museum

A family dispute in Austria raises questions about the ownership history of a famous sculpture purchased eight years ago by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Austrian news magazine News reported Friday that it is not entirely clear who possessed the piece during World War II.

The sculpture in dispute, “Der Verdrüssliche” (“The Vexed Man”), was created by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, a leading Austrian artist of the 18th century. After working for Empress Maria Theresa, making sculptures of her and her husband, Messerschmidt left Vienna and made dozens of sculptures known as “character heads” – works world famous for their awkward faces.

Eight years ago the Getty Museum bought “The Vexed Man” for 4.3 million euros from one of Austria’s most prominent art traders, Reinhold Hofstätter. Since then it has been shown in New York’s Neue Galerie and the Louvre, as well as in Los Angeles.

But photos, letters and legal paperwork sent to the public prosecutor’s office in Vienna on behalf of Gabriel Hofstätter, Reinhold's nephew, reveal an ownership fight over the sculpture. According to the information, Gabriel Hofstätter, an owner of the work in the second half of the 20th century, is missing from the museum’s record of ownership – the work’s provenance.

Hofstätter inherited “The Vexed Man” from his father, Wolfgang Hofstätter. According to the documents sent to the prosecutor, Reinhold Hofstätter took possession of the sculpture in a potentially unlawful manner and eventually sold it to the museum.

According to the documents, the provenance shown for the 1920s until the years after World War II might be incorrect. While there is no information that “The Vexed Man” was stolen by the Nazis, it is not fully clear who owned the sculpture before and during the Nazi regime.

Several other of Messerschmidt’s “character heads” were taken from Jewish owners at that time. A few years ago the Wien Museum, the Vienna Museum, had to return two of these sculptures to their rightful owners.

The prosecutor did not launch a criminal investigation because she considered it a civil matter. Reinhold Hofstätter died in 2013 and News reported that people close to him reject all allegations filed to the prosecutor.

Investigative reporter Stefan Melichar, the story’s author, approached the Getty Museum with a list of questions about the sculpture. Following his inquiries the museum revised its provenance information on the piece. But Getty did not answer questions on the whereabouts of the sculpture during World War II.

Ron Hartwig, vice president for communications at the J. Paul Getty Trust, said the museum had conducted proper due diligence.

“The J. Paul Getty Museum conducted appropriate due diligence before acquiring ‘Vexed Man’ in 2008 and the Austrian Antiquities and Monuments Office issued a valid export license before it left Austria,” Hartwig said.

“Based on your inquiry, we are revising the provenance information on our website to better reflect the attached information. We always welcome additional information about objects in our collection.”