Hubertus Czernin, an Austrian journalist who was a key figure in efforts to return five multimillion-dollar paintings looted by Nazis in World War II to their rightful owner in Los Angeles, has died. He was 50.
Czernin, who had been in failing health for several years, died Saturday in Vienna of complications from mastocytosis, a rare cell disorder, said Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Maria Altmann in the art restitution case.
The Gustav Klimt paintings were seized by Nazi officials in Vienna in 1938. Two pieces are famous portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, an art patron who helped finance Klimt’s work, and three are landscapes.
Czernin was the first journalist to gain access to the archives at the Austrian Gallery, the country’s national museum, and examine the paper trail surrounding pieces of art whose ownership was in question.
His reporting led to a series of articles about stolen works of art published in Vienna’s Der Standard newspaper in 1998, when Czernin first wrote about the case of Bloch-Bauer and her paintings. He later wrote a book on the art restitution issue and used Klimt’s 1907 gold portrait of Bloch-Bauer on the cover.
“His research led to Austria’s enactment of legislation that ultimately led to the recovery of the Klimt paintings,” Schoenberg said, “as well as thousands of other works of art -- both large and small -- to other families.”
The Art Restitution Law opened museum archives in Austria and facilitated claims from families seeking restitution of artwork that was seized by the Nazis during the war or expropriated by the Austrian government after the war.
After the legislation was enacted, Altmann received a call from a friend in Austria telling her of the development. Over the years, Altmann had been told that her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, had given the paintings to the Austrian gallery in 1925. But Czernin’s research, which showed that claim to be false, paved the way for Altmann’s legal efforts to gain custody of the works.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann could sue Austria in U.S. courts for restitution of the paintings. In an effort to avoid a protracted court fight, Schoenberg represented his client in a binding arbitration with the Austrian government. In January, an Austrian Arbitration Court ordered the government to turn over five Klimt paintings to Altmann.
“Hubertus Czernin was a hero to me,” Schoenberg said. “He committed his life to exposing unspoken truths about Austria and its Nazi past. Without his efforts, none of the recent art restitution would have taken place and certainly the five famous Klimt paintings would never have been returned to Maria Altmann. As Maria says, ‘Without Hubertus, there would have been nothing.’ ”
In a country where many journalists have been deferential to those in power, Czernin stood apart.
He was once fired as editor of Profil magazine for running a cover photograph that superimposed the head of then-Chancellor Franz Vranitzky over the body of a naked man. The headline read: “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Though quiet and somewhat shy, he was at the forefront of journalists investigating allegations in the mid-1980s that former U.N. Secretary-General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim’s links to the Nazis during the war had not been fully revealed.
Years later, Czernin was no more deferential to the Roman Catholic Church. His investigation of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer found that the former leader of Austria’s Roman Catholic Church had had sex with up to 2,000 seminarians and monks, starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1990s.
On Tuesday in Vienna, Czernin was honored by B’nai B’rith International for his efforts to facilitate the return of the looted art works.
The son of an Austrian aristocratic family, Czernin was born Jan. 17, 1956. In a New Yorker magazine article some years ago, he recalled that he learned little in public schools about Austria’s place in World War II. It was only through his family that he learned the extent of the anti-Semitism during and after the war years.
After studying history, art history and political science in college, he became interested in journalism. His first full-time staff position was as a political writer for Wochenpresse.
Czernin was in Los Angeles in April, when the Klimt paintings went on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In opening ceremonies, he was widely applauded for his role in the return of the paintings to Altmann. The paintings remain on view until June 30.
After being diagnosed with mastocytosis in 1999, Czernin concentrated his investigative and research efforts on Nazi art looting.
“Believing in justice for Maria Altmann kept Czernin alive,” an obituary in Der Standard noted this week. “When the Arbitration Court in the beginning of this year decided in favor of the restitution of the five Klimt paintings, he had achieved one of his biggest victories.”
Czernin is survived by his wife, Valerie; three daughters: Sophie, Johanna and Antonia; and a brother, Dr. Johannes Czernin of Los Angeles.
Penz reported from Vienna and Thurber from Los Angeles.