Treasures plundered by Nazis sold to help victims of Holocaust

In an atmosphere of emotion rarely witnessed in an auction house, works plundered by the Nazis were yesterday sold at record prices to benefit victims of the Holocaust.

By the end of the day, of the Mauerbach Benefit Sale in Vienna had raised nearly pounds 8.2m , more than four times the estimate for the whole sale.

One painting by Abraham Mignon - Peonies, Roses, Tulips and Poppies in a Glass vase with caterpillars, a Butterfly, a Snail, a Wasp and a Cockchafer on a Stone Ledge - estimated at pounds 47,000, was sold to a London art dealer for pounds 742,000.

"It's very emotional. It's a very personal occasion but also one of tremendous pride. People thought it was too good to be true that the sale could combine artistic merit with cultural significance but it has," said Julia Hobsbawn, a spokeswoman for Christie's, which is handling the sale on behalf of Austria's Federation of Jewish Communities.

The two-day auction closes one of the most controversial legacies of the Second World War, after which Austria sequestered thousands of valuable items seized by the Nazis from Jewish homes.

The government has attracted fierce criticism for its half-century delay in returning the items to the victims or their relatives, and in a public apology Franz Vranitzky, Austria's Chancellor, last Monday called for an acknowledgement of "the darkest chapter in its history".

In 1955 Austria was instructed to return the art, which Adolf Hitler's troops had stored across Central Europe.

But the country's reluctance to take responsibility for the role it played in the Holocaust and bureaucratic foot-dragging prevented the objects from being disbursed and they were held for decades in the Mauerbach monastery.

Paul Grosz, president of Vienna's Jewish community, who was at the sale, said that it marked "an important milestone in the countless years of attempted restitution that has not only occupied us for over five decades but often cast a great shadow on our relations with the Austrian government".

Yet, according to onlookers among the 1,000-odd people packed into the auction rooms at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, the mood yesterday was not of bitterness but of pride.

One man identified his missing works shortly before the sale began, but donated them straight backto the sale once his ownership had been established.

The works, finally turned over to the Jewish community last year, include 19th-century landscapes and portraits, Old Master paintings and drawings, antique coins, sculptures, tapestries, and porcelains. They offer a glimpse of the assimilated world of Austria's Jews and of Nazi aesthetic.

Eighty-eight per cent of the proceeds will go to aid Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and 12 per cent to non-Jewish, Austrian survivors.

Ronald Lauder, a former United States ambassador to Austria and co-chairman of the auction benefit committee, said that most overseas bids were coming from Jews "who wanted this as a remembrance of a time that was".

Israel's Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv museums, and US Jewish organisations, were among the potential buyers. Joel Marmelstein was bidding on behalf of the Charles T Sitrin Jewish health centre in New York.

"We thought it was important to give them a final, Jewish setting and also to honour some of the survivors in our community from Austria and other parts of Europe," he said.

Fran Laufer, a Holocaust survivor, made the trip from New York out of nostalgia. "It is such a mixed feeling," she said. "All this that has happened to me is coming back."

t One of the last legacies of the Second World War came to an end last night when pounds 12m of looted Nazi gold was transferred to Albania.

But the one-and-a-half tons of gold, which has been in the vaults of the Bank of England for 50 years, is expected to remain there on deposit rather than be shipped out to Albania.