U.S. National Gallery Returns Art to Heir of Holocaust Victim

'A Branch with Shriveled Leaves' was sold under duress by Marianne Schmidl in Austria in 1939.

Dr. Johann Schiller holds a replica of a nearly 200-year-old drawing, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin, AP

AP - The National Gallery of Art has returned a 200-year-old drawing to the heirs of an Austrian woman who had to sell it during World War II and later died in the Holocaust.

"A Branch with Shriveled Leaves" by the German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld had been owned by the artist's descendants until Marianne Schmidl sold it under duress in 1939. Although Schmidl was a Christian, her father was born Jewish and she was declared Jewish by the Nazis after they annexed Austria. Her family last heard from her in 1942 after she was deported to a holding point for a concentration camp in Poland, and she was declared dead in 1950.

Over the last few years, museums have returned roughly 15 pieces of art to Schmidl's heirs, said her grand-nephew Johann Schiller, who represents the family in negotiations over its lost artwork. The exquisite drawing of decaying leaves was one of the most important works the family has reclaimed, Schiller told The Associated Press.

"My mother would sometimes say, 'I wonder where the shriveled leaves are,'" he said.

National Gallery representatives handed the drawing over to Schiller on Wednesday. The gallery has also reimbursed the family for a similar drawing in its collection that Schmidl sold — "Shriveled Leaves" by Friedrich Olivier, which like the other piece dates to 1817 — and it will remain in Washington. Both artists are among Schiller and Schmidl's ancestors.

It's just the second time the National Gallery has given back a work of art that it had unknowingly acquired because of Nazi looting. Most Nazi-confiscated art remained in Europe, and U.S. museums have returned roughly 50 pieces over the last two decades, said Anita Difanis, director of government affairs for the Association of Art Museum Directors.

"What has wound up in the United States are relatively few, and of those few, all of them may not be in museums. Most of them are probably in private collections," she said. "We don't know how many they are; we don't know where they are."

Schmidl grew up amid the lively culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna and was highly educated, earning a doctorate in ethnology, a branch of anthropology. She was working at Austria's national library when Nazi Germany annexed the country in 1938 and forced residents to prove their Aryan heritage. After she was declared Jewish, she was no longer able to work and had to sell her assets.

"The letter that is basically her death sentence is an official notification by the Vienna police, saying, 'Your application, Marianne Schmidl to be categorized as a Jew of mixed origin second class is being refused," Schiller said. "Had it been granted, she would have been regarded as a half-Jewish person and therefore would not have been deported."

Schiller said his wife wept and he, too, became emotional, thinking about his great-aunt, when he received the drawing. He'd like to keep it for sentimental reasons, but he said it will be sold in keeping with the family's wishes.

"What is important is that her dignity was restored, and what is absolutely fantastic: It was restored by the state," Schiller said. "Here, the state is doing in effect, something which we can call the rule of law indeed enacted in the most noble way."