Painting seized by Hitler at centre of Wolf Theiss legal battle

The Austria-based firm has been instructed by a member of the family of the painting’s original owners, Sophie Huvos Czernin, to seek legal restitution of The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer. The painting is thought to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Wolf Theiss partner Andreas Theiss, representing the family, said Czernin’s father Count Jaromir Czernin had been forced into selling the painting to Hitler in 1940 for one million reichsmarks to save his family.

The painting currently hangs in the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts (the Kunsthistorische Museum Wien) and has been described as the most valuable picture in the museum.

“I’m realistic enough to realise what it would mean to Austria to lose an icon,” said Theiss. “It’s a political issue, the case is completely open. But in a legal sense we have an 80 per cent chance of winning.”

Since a change in the law in 1998, Austria has returned more than 10,000 pieces of art including paintings by Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch.

The Czernins had already sought to regain possession of the painting by the end of the war. In 1960, the Austrian Constitutional Court rendered a decision which deemed the sale of the painting to be in accordance with all applicable laws and the claim was rejected.

“On the basis of the material at hand, we have concluded that the sale of the Vermeer painting not only was involuntary, but also exclusively attributable to Adolf Hitler’s yearning for this painting to be part of the Fuehrer Museum in Linz, Upper Austria,” Theiss continued.

“The purchase price constituted merely a fraction of the actual value; such purchase would then, of course, be regarded as expropriation, rather than a genuine purchase.

“Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that Jaromir Czernin’s wife, as a ‘second-degree (Jewish) half-breed’ pursuant to the Nuremberg Laws, was at peril. The sale of the Vermeer painting was thus the price Count Czernin had to pay in order for his family to survive.”

The Vienna Museum of Fine Arts has forwarded the Wolf Theiss dossier to the restitution committee.