In the final year of the 20th century, my family, or to be precise my aunt Liliane, received notification from authorities in Austria that they would be returning a painting stolen from us by the Nazis. Since the end of the war, it appeared, this picture had been on permanent exhibition in the Belvedere, Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt’s architectural masterpiece that has become a museum in the center of Vienna. Now a change in the law obliged those in possession of such stolen art to restore it to the rightful owners.
Plain sailing, you might think. They knew who we were and how to reach us. In a masterly display of bureaucratic obstruction, though, the Austrian authorities resorted to one delaying tactic after another, succeeding in spinning out their response to this obligation for eleven years. At times, I felt that since they wanted so badly to keep this picture, we should let them have it. But my cousin Elisabeth, Liliane’s daughter, rightly maintained that in principle theft should not be condoned, however much frustration and indignation this might arouse in us.