Last November the Austrian minister of culture, Elisabeth Gehrer, said that Austria would return Edvard Munch's "Summer Night on the Beach" (ca. 1902) to the heirs of Alma Mahler-Werfel, ending a restitution battle that has lasted six decades.
Gehrer reversed a decision taken seven years earlier. In 1999, while publicly conceding the strength of the claim on "historical moral grounds," the minister's advisory council on restitution issues threw out the case on a technicality, arguing that the matter had already been settled by an Austrian court in the 1950's.
Gehrer's recent decision comes in response to petitions by Gert-Jan van den Bergh, the Dutch lawyer acting for the Mahler heirs, who argued that Austria's General Settlement Fund Law, enacted in 2001, allows for the resolution of cases of "extreme injustice" without prejudice by previous rulings.
"Summers Night on the Beach" was given to Alma Mahler-Werfel in 1916 by her husband, Walter Gropius, on the occasion of the birth of their daughter, Manon. She left it behind in Vienna when she fled the Nazis in 1938. In 1940, without her knowledge, her stepfather, the painter Carl Moll, sold the painting at a fraction of its worth to the Austrian Gallery Belvedere, where it has hung ever since.
Commenting on the restitution, Marina Mahler, granddaughter of Alma said: "The decision is an important step toward the restoration of the special bond between my family and Austria. It pays tribute to the memory of my grandmother Alma, who with great sadness and a deep sense of betrayal fought to her deathbed for the return of the painting."
--Sophie Lillie, ARTnews January 2007