One of Austria's most treasured artworks looked safe to remain in the country for now after an expert panel Friday rejected restitution claims by descendants of its Jewish former owners robbed by the Nazis.
The Art Restitution Advisory Board "recommended unanimously ... not to return the 'Beethoven Frieze' by Gustav Klimt to the heirs of Erich Lederer," the body's chair Clemens Jabloner told journalists in Vienna.
The fresco, 34 metres (112 feet) long, two metres high and weighing several tons, is widely regarded as a central masterpiece of Viennese "Jugendstil" art nouveau from the early 20th century.
The panel rejected arguments that an export ban had forced Lederer to sell the artwork to the Austrian Republic in 1972 at what his heirs say was a knock-down price of 15 million schillings or around $750,000.
But Marc Weber, a lawyer from Swiss law firm Lanter Rechtsanwaelte representing some of the heirs, told AFP that the panel had "muddled up the facts."
"We are now considering taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights and/or to the United States," Weber said.
- Restitution -
Since Austria passed a law in 1998 covering the restitution of vast numbers of artworks stolen by the Nazis, thousands have been returned -- including major works worth millions of euros (dollars).
The most famous case in recent years concerned Maria Altmann, who after a lengthy legal battle secured the return of five Klimts in 2006. One of them, "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I," sold for $135 million, a record at the time.
Klimt (1862-1918) is probably best known for his painting "The Kiss." The style and liberal use of gold paint of the "Beethoven Frieze," inspired by the composer's ninth symphony, is also instantly recognisable as Klimt's work.
The piece, made for a 1902 exhibition, was meant to be temporary. But it was saved from the trash, sawn into eight pieces, stored in a furniture depot for 12 years and eventually added in 1915 by August Lederer to his extensive collection.
Lederer died a few years before Hitler "annexed" Austria in 1938, and the family lost the lot. Many, including several Klimt pieces and old masters, went up in flames in 1945 when the SS set fire to the castle where they were being stored.
The works that survived, which included the frieze, were then returned -- on paper at least -- to August's son Erich Lederer, who had fled Nazi Austria and ended up in Switzerland.
As was the common and dubious practice, in exchange for an export licence for some works Erich Lederer relinquished ownership of others. These were restored to his descendants after a 2009 amendment to Austrian law.
His descendants say that the frieze should be covered by the same law, arguing Lederer only agreed to sell it to Austria in 1972 because he was unable to take it out of the country.
The government panel on Friday rejected that reasoning, citing comments from then-chancellor Bruno Kreisky from 1972 to suggest that export was indeed an option.
Weber, the lawyer, called this "completely absurd".
- Final decision -
After the sale, the fresco was restored over almost a decade. In 1986 it went on show in a specially built basement in Vienna's Secession Building, the work's original and badly war-damaged 1902 home.
There it has pride of place, attracting hoards of visitors.
The gallery, itself a Jugendstil masterpiece topped by a dome of golden laurel leaves, says that returning it would be "unjustified both legally and morally."
The final decision on whether to return the work falls to Culture Minister Josef Ostermayer, who said Friday that he would stick to the panel's recommendation, as Vienna has done in the past.
"Losing (the frieze) ... would of course have been a loss for Austria as a place for art and culture," Ostermayer told the Austria Press Agency.