Art seized by Nazis set to raise £500k for charity 45 years after benefactor's death

The sight-loss charity the Vision Foundation was the main beneficiary of the will of Irma Löwenstein Austin, who fled Vienna for London in 1938

One of the paintings that have been recovered by charity (Photograph: The Dorotheum, Vienna)
One of the paintings that have been recovered by charity (Photograph: The Dorotheum, Vienna)

A sight-loss charity is set to receive a possible £500,000 from a legacy almost 45 years after the benefactor died, following the recovery of lost paintings seized by the Nazis in the run-up to the Second World War.

The Vision Foundation said Irma Löwenstein Austin, who fled Vienna for London to escape Nazi persecution, left the majority of her estate to the charity, formerly the Greater London Fund for the Blind, when she died in April 1976.

Löwenstein Austin and her husband, Oscar Löwenstein, were prominent members of the Jewish community in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s and had an extensive art collection.

But in 1938, the collection was seized by the Nazis under the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws and the couple escaped to London, only for Oscar Löwenstein to die shortly after reaching the UK.

Löwenstein Austin, who remarried but outlived her second husband, and had no children of her own, spent years after the war trying to reclaim the art collection, the charity said, but her efforts were blocked by the then-Soviet Union, which was one of the four power-sharing states controlling Vienna at the time.

Although she was able to bring some pieces of the collection to London, and the proceeds of their sale went to the charity after she died, many artworks remain unaccounted for.

But in 2018, the charity was told that three paintings belonging to the Löwenstein collection, by the Austrian artist Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, had been found in German museums.

The foundation, with support from the law firm Charles Russell Speechlys and the art advisory experts Cadell + Co, both working pro bono, was able to recover the pictures.

Two were sold at auction in Vienna at the end of last year, for a total sum of about £350,000, and the third is due to be auctioned in the spring. Experts predict it could raise as much as £180,000.

Tamsin Baxter, director of development at the Vision Foundation, said: “It is very rare for a charity to be the beneficiary in a restitution case of this nature. We felt truly humbled.

“After everything Irma Löwenstein Austin must have gone through in her life, it is truly remarkable that almost 50 years since her death she is still supporting a cause that meant so much to her during her life.

"Our pledge to Irma is that these paintings will be used for good through our work with blind and partially sighted people.”

It is not clear why Löwenstein Austin left the majority of her estate to the charity.

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