The Mystery of the Burned Klimt Works

Evacuation of a Strudle-Sculpture from the state hall of the Austrian National Library to a storage site (1943)Austrian National Library

During the last days of the Second World War, major works by Gustav Klimt from the Lederer Collection were—in all likelihood—burned at Schloss Immendorf in Lower Austria, along with many other valuable works of art.

In 1942, preparations began to salvage endangered cultural assets in the Third Reich. The assets were deposited at various locations where the likelihood of being bombed was low.

Evacuation of books at the state hall from the Austrian National Library to a storage site (1943)Austrian National Library

Parts of Austria's National Library collection, for instance, were subjected to similar measures.

Bergung Karls VI. (1943) by UnbekanntAustrian National Library

Storage site for books at the Hofburg in Vienna (1943)Austrian National Library

Castle Immendorf (1936) by Heinrich SeeringAustrian National Library

Schloss Immendorf, which was owned by the Freudenthal family, was selected as a salvage location in Lower Austria. From 1942 onward, several loads of artwork were transported to Immendorf. The delivery notes contain only a few details about the individual items, and there was no photographic documentation. As a result, it is still not known today which works were actually there.

In 1945, the castle was destroyed by fire. The circumstances of the fire are still unclear. It is believed that, during the last few days of the war, a unit of the "Feldherrnhalle" division that had occupied the castle quarters subsequently withdrew from Immendorf on May 8, 1945 due to the approaching Red Army. However, they had hidden timed explosives in the four corner towers of the castle. The Red Army then occupied the castle and the explosives were set off by the timers. Eventually, the castle started to burn, and it is generally believed that all works of art burned along with it. It is possible, though, that some of the works of art could have been brought out of the building between the explosions. After the Second World War was over, there were no targeted excavations on the site and the ruined castle was leveled rather than rebuilt. Most Klimt researchers suspect that at least 10 works from the Lederer collection burned at Schloss Immendorf.

Serena Lederer (after 1903) by Martin GerlachAustrian National Library

The collection belonging to August Lederer and his wife Serena is regarded as the largest and most important private collection of Gustav Klimt's works. Alongside paintings, it also included a variety of drawings from Klimt's estate.

August Lederer, a major industrialist who owned liquor factories, married Serena Pulitzer in 1892. Her relatives included the well-known American journalist and publisher, Josef Pulitzer. The couple owned several residences, including an apartment in no. 8 Bartensteingasse, in Vienna's first district, where they housed their Klimt collection.

Serena Lederer (after 1903) by Martin GerlachAustrian National Library

A painting of Serena herself was on display there, as well as the painting of their daughter Elisabeth, whose married name was Bachofen-Echt.

Painting "Charlotte Pulitzer" (1915) by Gustav Klimt (after 1915) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt also painted a portrait of Serena Lederer's mother, Charlotte Pulitzer. Since the forced Nazi administration of the Lederer Collection in 1943, this painting has been considered lost.

The left side hall with the Beethoven frieze by Gustav Klimt during the 14th exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1902) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Collecting art was a huge passion of the Lederers. They also had a close friendship with Klimt and helped him to overcome financial difficulties. In 1915, for example, they bought the 112-feet-long Beethoven Frieze from the patron and industrialist Carl Reininghaus, which Klimt had made in 1902 for the Beethoven exhibition at the Vienna Secession.

Castle Immendorf (1936) by Heinrich SeeringAustrian National Library

Serena Lederer, who was widowed in 1936, was expropriated in 1938 under National Socialism. She fled to Hungary, where she died in 1943. In those years, a part of the Lederer collection was sent to Schloss Immendorf to protect the artworks from bombing.

Painting "Gastein" (1917) by Gustav Klimt (1917) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

However, some researchers doubt the number of Klimt works from the Lederer collection that were actually burned at Schloss Immendorf. Due to inconsistencies on the storage and transport lists, it could not be ruled out that some paintings from the collection, such as "Gastein" (1917), "Malcesine am Gardasee" (Malcesine on Lake Garda) (1913), and "Aus dem Reich des Todes (Zug der Toten)" (From the Empire of Death (Procession of the Dead)) (1903) might not even have reached Immendorf, meaning the disaster could have been averted.

Gustav Klimt's Painting "Philosophy" (um 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The three large "Faculty Paintings" by Klimt, which were deposited at Immendorf, are certainly considered to be burned. Klimt originally painted them for the University of Vienna's Great Hall. Of these, "Jurisprudenz" (Jurisprudence) and "Philosophie" (Philosophy) were once owned by the Lederers.

Gustav Klimt's Painting 'Jurisprudenz' (1903) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Gustav Klimt's painting "Medicine" (nach 1901) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The "Medizin" (Medicine) painting was part of the Austrian Gallery (now the Belvedere) collection. It was also transported to Immendorf for security reasons and burned there in 1945.

99th exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1928) by Handwerkliches Lichtbild Julius ScherbAustrian National Library

At Immendorf, all deposited artworks were left in their frames, since the tall rooms in the castle could easily accommodate large-format paintings. Due to the enormous size of the Faculty Paintings (170 x 118 inches), removing them at any speed during the events in the castle in 1945 would hardly have been possible. This fact supports the general assumption that these three Klimt paintings were not saved.

Serena Lederer (after 1903) by Martin GerlachAustrian National Library

Also among the burned works was the painting "Goldener Apfelbaum" (Golden Apple Tree), which originally hung in the salon of Serena Lederer in no. 8 Bartensteingasse.

The painting "Das Mädchen im Profil" (The Girl in Profile), also known as "Wally," was also on display there, and subsequently brought to Immendorf.

Painting "Music" (1897/1898) by Gustav Klimt (after 1898) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

The "Musik" (Music) over-door piece was exhibited in the Secession along with other Klimt works from the August and Serena Lederer collection, prior to being transported to Immendorf. The painting was originally created and installed above the door in the music room belonging to Nikolaus Dumba, which was designed by Klimt.

Nikolaus Dumba sitting in his study (c. 1890)Austrian National Library

Nikolaus Dumba (1830–1900) was an Austrian industrialist who was considered an important art patron and collector as well as a proponent of musical life in Vienna. He commissioned the painter Hans Makart to design his study, for instance.

Castle Immendorf (1936) by Heinrich SeeringAustrian National Library

Even today, extensive efforts are being made to reconstruct the events in Immendorf and the search goes on for works that could possibly have been rescued from the castle before the fire.

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