Vienna, 30 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The clack of an auctioneer's hammer today and tomorrow is determining the disposition of 8,000 artworks, including 1,500 paintings, stolen mostly from Jews by Adolf Hitler's Nazis in World War II.
The sale began with paintings today, and has already exceeded expectations. Items are fetching from 5 to 10 times the declared values.
Susan Adams, from British auctioneers Christies, who organized the sale, said the auction barely got a third of the way through the lots expected to be sold in its first hours.
"Bidding is far higher than was predicted. And we are taking that much longer for each item," she said.
The auctioneers opened up special rooms complete with a video wall to allow latecomers to take part in the bidding. More than 100 reporters from as far as Japan and the United States turned up at the Vienna Museum for Applied Art to observe.
One participant, Japanese buyer Hashimoto Kathgiri, said the Japanense have a great interest in the event.
"We had a similar problem in our history and we see the parallels," he said.
The sale culminates a controversy over Austria's delay in returning the artifacts to their owners after the Allies handed them over to their countries of origin at the end of the war. The proceeds of the sale, which had been estimated to reach around $2.5 million and are likely to be much higher, will go to Austrian victims of the Holocaust, including non-Jews.
Jewish community leaders have accused the government of negligence in delaying sending back the treasures. Paul Grosz, the president of Vienna's Jewish community, attended the sale. He said it was a major event for Austrian Jews after years of seeking restitution, and of delays that "cast a great shadow on our relations with the Austrian government."
Grosz said many items already have been returned to descendants of original owners. He said the fact that there are no successful claimants for the remaining items is a reminder that whole families were erased in the Holocaust.
Ingrid Oberleitner, a Ministry of Finance lawyer closely involved in handing over the property to Austria's Federation of Jewish Communities, said that despite various restitution laws and publications in Austria and abroad of property lists, proper restitution was a problem.
"One painting was claimed by 18 people," she said.
She said also that some officials and others balked at completing the restitution.
In the collection are a rediscovered bust of Alexander the Great from 3 B.C., paintings including one by Flemish master Pieter Brueghel, Flemish tapestries, Persian carpets, coins, and a range of 19th century landscapes and society portraits. A 15th century painting by Sienese artist Pietro di Francesco degli Orioli depicting the Madonna and child and valued up to $110,000, was expected to fetch one of the highest prices.
The Austrian-born Hitler had planned to erect a museum in the city of Linz to house the works.
Much of the material was stored for the past 40 years in an ancient monastery in Mauerbach, Austria. It was only last year that Austria finally handed over the works to the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities after a vote in parliament.
Austria until recently portrayed itself as a victim of National Socialism. The position only changed in 1993 when Chancellor Franz Vranitzky acknowledged during a visit to Israel that Austrians were not only victims but also -- in his phrase -- "willing servants of Nazism." Last year the Austrian parliament voted to pay compensation to an estimated 30,000 Austrian victims persecuted during Hitler's Nazi rule.