Vienna Philharmonic returns priceless artwork to heirs of expropriated owner Austria has recently been the focus of an investigation looking into the alleged theft of an artwork during World War II.

The canvas in question was painted in 1883 by renowned French Neo-Impressionist master, Paul Signac. The work is entitled ‘Port-en-Bessin’ has become one of the artist’s more familiar pieces since the discovery of its unhappy past and associated restitution issues.

The work, valued at over $500,000, was originally owned by Marcel Koch.

By 1940, however, it had been presented to the Austrian Philharmonic Orchestra by an Austrian national named Roman Loos, who at that time was serving in France as the Secret Police’s Head and Chief.

Artnet News reports that the work was passed to the Austrian Philharmonic Orchestra ‘in exchange for a series of performances’, following its illegal expropriation from Mr Koch.

The decision to trace the history of this fantastic work was taken in 2013 by the

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s Director, Mr Clemens Hellsberg.

The task of confirming the work’s hazy provenance in 2013 was allocated to art historian Sophie Lillie. Ms Lillie had to search broadly to find the rightful owners as Mr Koch sadly passed away in 1999 leaving no direct descendent.

Following investigation, the work is to be given to the heirs of Koch’s estate who will, upon receipt of the piece, possess a truly fantastic work of neo-impressionist art.

Returning the work to its proper legal owner has been of vital importance for this historic institution.

Recalled in an article by Artnet News, Mr. Clemens Hellsberg is said to have told ORF, “for years we have strived to examine the past of the Vienna Philharmonic, and we are taking responsibility to make up for historical injustice.”

Reports suggest that the investigation into the history of the artwork has, in fact, been ongoing since the 1980s and is an indication of the difficulties that can beset recovery cases.

The painting’s return to Koch’s heirs will also end a long running restitution case, which has been ongoing since the Philharmonic Orchestra initially identified Koch’s heirs and announced a desire to return the painting in April 2014. It is reported that, according to the Austrian daily newspaper Profil, five heirs have reportedly chosen to sell the artwork through a Parisian auction house.

In recent years, many cases such as this one have come to trial all over the world as relatives of individuals whose property was stolen by Nazi forces are claiming their rightful inheritance.

In an attempt to reunite original owners with their priceless artworks, new institutions, companies and research databases, together with governmental groups, have developed to fill this void. Better research mechanisms, legal developments and a greater will to restore works to their rightful owners in part explain the seeming rise in the number of restitution cases over the past years.

Any individual or company looking to purchase art should always pay full attention to the work’s provenance. Although in some jurisdictions, such as England and Wales, rules on the limitation of actions may in some cases make it difficult for heirs of former owners to bring claims many years after a theft. However, owning a work of art that turns out to have been looted by the Nazis without returning it to its former owner’s heirs can also be damaging to an institution’s reputation quite aside from any legal claim.

With numerous potential pitfalls that can arise if there is a potential issue regarding ownership or history, a full and comprehensive survey of a work’s history and provenance is of paramount importance.

A history of having been looted by the Nazis is not the only area that could give rise to a potential recovery claim or reputational damage, and where insufficient details are provided about an artwork’s history, there remains the potential that there could be other legal or beneficial interests in an artwork, reducing or even eliminating entirely its value to a purchaser.

At the ADDG, through Artive, our specialist service provider for title claims checks and Art Recovery, our specialist service provider for assisting with recovery of stolen artworks, we can provide comprehensive assistance to clients before artworks are sold or purchased to deal with any potential restitution or title claims issues before they become a serious – and potentially expensive – problem.

To find out more about title checks, restitution and provenance research, please contact us at: enquiries@artduediligencegroup.com and on 07460 352 939.

If you are interested in understanding more on this fascinating topic, please see the following:

– Restitution alert – Dutch website launched to reunite looted art works with lawful owners.

– Wind of Change – Part 1: Restitution, France” here – http://jessicafranses.com/wind-change-part-1-restitution-france).

Jessica Franses