A British family has been given new hope that a work of art stolen by the Nazis from a relative in Austria could be returned.
The heirs of Jenny Steiner have been battling for years for the return of Häuser am Meer, by the 20th-century impressionist Egon Schiele. Estimated to be worth £10m, it was taken after Mrs Steiner and her family fled Vienna in 1938.
Now an apparent change of heart by the Austrian government to re-examine the status of the Leopold Museum in Vienna, which bought the painting, could bring them closer to reclaiming the heirloom.
Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, explained: “Though the Leopold Museum is funded by public money, the Austrian government deemed it a private foundation, so any works of art whose provenance showed they were looted by the Nazis could not be reclaimed.
“The fact that the government has said it will re-examine the Leopold’s status is significant because it has been under intense international pressure to do something about looted art.”
Erika Jakubovits, executive director of the Vienna Jewish community, said: “We have had two legal opinions. One is about the Leopold Museum and the restitution law to try to find a way the law could be applied to the museum. The second is on certain paintings owned by the museum, of which this is one. I have handed these [opinions] to the minister for cultural affairs. I think the government understands that something has to be done and that the law will change. This is not about money, it is about a work of art being restored to its rightful owners.”
But Rudolf Leopold, the museum’s 83-year-old founder, said he would refuse to hand over the Schiele, as he had never knowingly bought anything that he knew to be Jewish property.
Mrs Steiner was born Jenny Pulitzer in 1863 in Budapest and married Wilhelm Steiner. They had five children and ran a silk company in Vienna. She was a patron of the Vienna Secession museum and especially of the artist Gustav Klimt, who painted family portraits.
After the 1938 Nazi annexation of Austria, the family fled and settled in New York, where Mrs Steiner died in 1958, aged 95. As well as the British heirs, there are branches of the family in America and Vienna.
Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, has represented the British heirs in their struggle. He said this week: “The recent developments are positive, and I hope the changes can be made swiftly so that the British family whose painting is held by the Leopold Foundation can be returned to it as soon as possible.”