Gustav Klimt, “Zwei Liegende” (ca 1916/17) (photo by Reinhard Haider, courtesy Lentos Museum, Linz)

Back in the 1960s, a secretary at Austria’s Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz noticed some irregularities in the documentation of three Egon Schiele artworks that had been loaned to the museum. When the secretary brought it up to her boss, then-director Walter Kasten, he gave her a Gustav Klimt drawing to her keep her quiet.

The world learned the story this week when the Klimt drawing, “Zwei Liegende”(“Two Reclining Figures”) (ca 1916/17)  — which was also only on loan to the museum — was discovered in the recently deceased, former museum secretary’s closet; she told the whole story in her will.

The former secretary, whose identity hasn’t been released due to legal reasons, worked at the museum until 1977, writes Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times. According to the Austrian newspaper Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, in 1951, artist and collector Olga Jäger lent four works to the Neue Galerie, including the Klimt drawing and the three works by Schiele: a watercolor (“Junger Mann”), an oil painting (“Tote Stadt”), and a drawing (“Paar”). Jäger died in 1965. In 1990, her heirs started asking for the four works back from the museum, but not only had the Klimt drawing disappeared, but the three works by Schiele as well. According to the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, when the museum staff was questioned, the secretary said she knew nothing.

A new generation of Jägers brought the case to court in 2006, suing the city for losing their family’s artwork. In 2011, the city of Linz was ordered to pay the Jäger family €100,ooo (~$125,000) for the loss of “Paar.” In 2017, a further €8.21 million (~$10.26 million) was assessed for the remaining three works.

In 2012, there was a glimmer of hope in finding the missing Klimt and Schieles when a trove of almost 1,500 Nazi-looted works was found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a relative of Neue Galerie founder Wolfgang Gurlitt. Because of the family connection, authorities hoped to find the four missing Jäger family works in the trove, but to no avail.

While the three Schiele works remain missing, what will become of the Klimt drawing? The Oberösterreichische Nachrichten notes that last month, the former secretary’s lawyer returned the drawing to the city of Linz, as per the instructions in her will. The Lentos Museum (the renamed Neue Galerie) will display the drawing in its exhibition, 1918 — Klimt – Moser – Schiele: Collected Beauties, which runs this weekend through May 21, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the three artists’ deaths. Meanwhile, the Jäger family finds itself back in court, reopening its restitution case. Maybe they’ll get at least one of their grandmother’s artworks back; at least everyone knows where it is this time.

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...

One reply on “Missing Klimt Drawing Found in the Closet of a Former Museum Secretary”

  1. I suspect the irregularities in the records were deliberate, put there by Kasten to facilitate their disappearance. Is it known whether the works were ever displayed by Neue Galerie? Mentioned in a catalog for one of its exhibitions? Such info might give at least some hint of when they disappeared. At any rate there’s a lesson here for collectors, who should insist on notarized photographic copies of all documents relating to any loaned works to any entity.

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