51 years late, Austria hands over its Nazi treasure

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Fifty-one years after the end of the Second World War, Christie's will next month auction more than 8,000 items, confiscated from Jews by the Austrian National Socialists, on behalf of remaining Jewish communities.

The Mauerbach Benefit Sale, so-named after the Austrian monastery in which the works lingered for almost 50 years, is the first international auction of restituted or "heirless" art and is expected to raise at least $3.5m (pounds 2m).

Examples were shown for the first time at Christie's in London yesterday. The property includes paintings by old masters such as Breughel, and (pictured right) The Oriental by Friedrich von Amerling and a bust of Alexander the Great from 3BC. These, and many unrecorded works, were handed to the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities following a vote in the Austrian parliament last year. It ends years of controversy over the Austrian government's delay in returning the works to descendants of the original owners.

"Nobody can rewrite history. No sale of this nature can go more than a few inches to re-righting the wrong which everyone, including the Austrians, acknowledge to be done," said Lord Hindlip, chairman of Christie's, which is holding the sale in Austria on a non-profit basis. "But if one takes a positive view of it, which I think one should do," he added, "it will mean a number of people who suffered most will benefit and I think that is our point ... some good at least will come out of it." Proceeds of the sale will be overseen by an international committee and will benefit both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust and their families.

Between 1938 and 1945 the National Socialists confiscated thousands of works of art, mainly from Jews. The most valuable pieces were put aside for Hitler's planned museum in Linz. After the war, works discovered by the Allies were handed over to the Austrian government on the understanding that they would be returned to their original owners, or their families.

But instead, the Austrians stored the loot in a monastery at Mauerbach, and successive governments refused to return it to the Jewish community. Those who did make a claim often found their way blocked by exhaustive interrogation as to ownership.

Frank Zeller, first secretary to the Austrian embassy, acknowledged at Christie's yesterday that the Austrian government had "not done enough and sometimes not the right thing" in relation to the delay experienced by victims of the Holocaust.

The Austrian government had finally acted "as an acknowledgement of moral responsibility", but had been slowed by the complications involved in restitution such as cases where 18 people staked a claim on one piece of work.