Provenance research & restitution
History and Agenda
1. The Jewish Museum Vienna has objects of the greatest diversity in its collections:
- The collection of the Vienna Jewish Community (IKG) on permanent loan
- The municipal collections: Berger collection, Schlaff collection, and Stern collection
- The JMW collection with new acquisitions and donations since 1992
- The Berger bequest, entrusted to the Jewish Museum in 2010 and containing around 2,800 objects and collections of objects.
The Jewish Museum Vienna carries out provenance research on all items in the collections. The results from the IKG collection are passed on to the Vienna Jewish Community, which then contacts possible heirs and decides on restitution by way of a board resolution. The research results for the other collections are presented to the Vienna Restitution Commission established on the basis of a Vienna council decision of April 29, 1999.
2. Compared with other Austrian museums, the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna is relatively young. The company was founded in 1988 and obtained a permanent home with its own depot in Palais Eskeles in 1993. In the first ten years it focused on researching into the permanent loan from the IKG. This collection is composed principally of ritual objects rescued from synagogues in Vienna and the rest of Austria and the inventory of the first Jewish Museum Vienna founded in 1895 and closed by the Gestapo in 1938. More on this looted and partly restituted collection here.
Unlike other Austrian museums that existed between 1935 and 1945 and increased their holdings in this time with dubious purchases and plundered objects, after moving to Palais Eskeles in 1993 the Jewish Museum Vienna had first to inventory the objects and identify missing items from its predecessor and look into the history of the objects in the other collections, most of which tell the story of life before the Shoah and of the Shoah itself. The Berger, Stern, and Schlaff collections, and new purchases and donations had also to be entered into the object database or inventoried for the first time as the starting point for provenance research.
3. Because of the complexity of the collections, the current provenance research agenda is wide-ranging. It is based on the screening carried out in 2008 under the direction of Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, former chief curator of the Jewish Museum Vienna, for suspicious objects whose provenance could not be determined with certainty and which either themselves gave indications of possible former private or institutional owners (whose legal successor is not the IKG Vienna) or for which there are indications of suspicious origins in the literature or other sources (e.g. inventory lists). This was followed in 2009 by a screening of the books in the Jewish Museum Vienna library, which also contains objects from the IKG and City of Vienna.
As most of the objects are Judaica, i.e. ritual objects in the narrow sense and, in the broader sense, documents and books (the latter mostly of less material value) and only to a lesser extent pictures and art objects in the classical sense, the investigation of sources in the literature and in inventory and confiscation lists is much more difficult than with provenance research into art objects. The reason is as banal as it is cynical: both the Nazis and the Allies were interested in works of art and much less in Judaica.*
4. As a result of the screening, 270 objects from the IKG collection and 220 from the municipal collections (Berger, Stern, Schlaff) need to be looked at more closely. As the collections are worked on it is quite possible that further objects will emerge for closer study. In addition, indications of previous owners other than the IKG Vienna have been found in the Jewish Museum library in 949 volumes from the IKG collection and in 34 volumes from the City of Vienna. The number in the IKG collection results from the fact that although the IKG’s own valuable library from before the war was completely plundered and less than 5 percent was returned, so-called “ownerless” books were also entrusted to it.**
5. As the Republic of Austria financed provenance research at Austrian federal museums by way of special budgets, the Jewish Museum Vienna also expected in the years 2008 and 2009 that the City of Vienna would earmark funds to support its provenance research. This did not occur and in addition in 2007 the Museum was no longer valuated, i.e. granted an automatic increase in the budget to cover rising costs. As a result the Museum submitted a provenance research project to “forMuse” in 2009 to assist it with its research. The project was not approved.
Because of the tight budget situation, provenance research in 2009/2010 could be commenced only on the basis of 10 hours/week. The researcher concerned, Wiebke Krohn, was able to investigate 10 paintings from the Berger collection and 14 from the IKG collection that appear to have come from the “Masse Adria,” a depot in Trieste containing the property of expelled or deported Jews.***
The results were submitted to the IKG and City of Vienna at the end of March 2011. The prospects for identifying heirs are promising for four of the 14 pictures from the IKG collection, but in the Berger collection no indications of a former owner or heir have been found. The decision regarding the four IKG pictures is with the board of the IKG.
6. During the renovation of Palais Eskeles in Dorotheergasse from January to October 2011 the JMW collections were moved to an outside depot and no provenance research was therefore possible. After the return of the collections to the Museum negotiations were resumed with the City of Vienna regarding the financing of the provenance research, with the outcome that the Museum will have to pay the costs from its operating budget.
From December 2011 till December 2015 Alexandra Chava Seymann conducted provenance research. In December 2015 the City declared a shortening of the subvention funds. Since 2016 prevenance reasearch can only be conducted project-related.
7. The arbitration responsible for the objects of the Jewish Museum Vienna is the Vienna Restitution Commission, which confirmed on March 15, 2012, its responsibility for the municipal collections. In summer 2012 the JMW drafted a guideline with the IKG restitution department regarding the procedure and division of labor for investigating the IKG collection at the Jewish Museum. The guideline was approved in September 2012 by the JMW supervisory board, which also includes representatives of the IKG Vienna. It provides for the investigation of objects from the IKG collection by the Jewish Museum Vienna with the support of the IKG restitution department. The IKG will be solely responsible for contacting possible heirs.
The Jewish Museum Vienna would be grateful for your active help in its provenance research. Any indication that could assist the Museum in this regard would be very welcome.
* See Neglected Witnesses. The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects During the Second World War and After, eds. Julie Marthe Cohen, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek (Amsterdam, 2011), p. 19.
** See Ingo Zechner, Die Bibliothek der Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde Wien. Entstehung – Entziehung – Restitution und so genannte „herrenlose“ Bücher, in: Murray G. Hall, Christina Köstner, Margot Werner (eds.), Geraubte Bücher. Die Österreichische Nationalbibliothek stellt sich ihrer NS-Vergangenheit (Vienna: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 2004).
*** See Wiebke Krohn, Reste der Masse Adria im Jüdischen Museum Wien, in: Eva Blimlinger, Monika Mayer (eds.), Kunst sammeln, Kunst handeln. Beiträge des Internationalen Symposiums in Wien (= Schriftenreihe der Kommission für Provenienzforschung, Bd. 3), Wien – Köln – Weimar 2012, p. 289-301.