Egon Schiele, Dämmernde Stadt
Impressionist & Modern Art

A Restituted Masterpiece by Egon Schiele

By Lucian Simmons

I n 1928 Elsa Koditschek, a young widow, bought Egon Schiele’s Dämmernde Stadt from an exhibition of the artist’s works organised by the Hagenbund (an artists’ collective) and the Neue Galerie in Vienna. This is the only artwork she is known to have purchased. She hung the work in the apartment house that she and her banker husband had built for themselves in 1911 on Erzbischofgasse in the prosperous suburb of Hietzing close to the Vienna Woods.

Elsa Koditschek. Image Courtesy of the Koditschek Family.

Elsa was still living in her Hietzing apartment in March 1938 when the Nazis arrived in Vienna. As the strictures on Jews began to take effect, Elsa gave up rooms in her apartment to friends and relatives and retreated into her music room where she slept on a couch. The Schiele she hung in the dining room over a chest of drawers that she had moved from the nursery. She wrote to her son in the United States that by 1939 she was financially dependent on ‘Aunt Syliva’ (Sylvia Kosminski) her tenant in the apartment upstairs. The following year, in August 1940, Elsa faced the double blow of her mother’s death and eviction from her home. She was given 14 days to surrender her apartment to Hertbert Gerbing, an SS officer working on the security detail in the former Rothschild Palace in Vienna. She sold and gave away all her possessions with the exception of her piano, a few small pieces of furniture – and the Schiele.

Elsa Koditschek spent the following months trying unsuccessfully to emigrate to Shanghai or Lisbon and during this time got to know the SS officer who had stolen her apartment. Whenever he and his wife could not work out how to operate something in Elsa’s home they summoned her to SS headquarters to help them out. So it was that on October 12, 1941, when Elsa received a postcard requiring her to report for relocation to Łódź (Litzmannstadt), she turned to Gerbing to ask if she could defer her resettlement. He told her that she could not defer her journey and painted a rosy picture of what her life would be like when she got to Łódź. He also told her not to take much luggage.

Egon Schiele, Dämmernde Stadt, 1913.

Instead of reporting for deportation, Elsa persuaded a Christian couple, Mr and Mrs Heinz, to shelter her and moved, with two small suitcases, to their apartment on Mariannengasse in central Vienna. Elsa lived in hiding in their apartment for 20 months. During this time a number of friends brought food and supplies to Elsa that she cooked for herself on a portable stove. Elsa had to stay away from the windows and leave the lights off to avoid being seen whenever Mr and Mrs Heinz went out. When Elsa feared detection, which was often, she hid for hours at a time in a crevice between a cupboard and a blanket box. In all the time she lived there, Elsa could only leave at night and then only a couple of times in nearly two years.

It was during Elsa’s time in hiding that Aunt Sylvia took it upon herself to sell Elsa’s Schiele.

One day in June 1943, Mr Heinz came home as usual at 6pm whilst Elsa was darning his socks. This time he was not alone. Two Nazi agents were with him. Elsa sensed something was amiss and slid into the kitchen. She overheard the agents opening cupboards and drawers before telling Mr Heinz to leave so that they could conduct a thorough search of the apartment. Elsa managed to slip past the agents whilst they were distracted and ran down to the street wearing an old dress, her poorest stockings and some oversize house-shoes that she had sewn for herself. Not having any money, Elsa hid round the corner from the apartment block, outside a children’s hospital, waiting for the Nazi agents to leave. After waiting for an hour there was no sign of the Nazis leaving so Elsa put her emergency plan into action. She had pre-agreed with Aunt Sylvia that if her hiding place was compromised she would rendezvous with her at a friend’s house some 30 minutes’ walk away. She trusted that Mr Heinz will have alerted Aunt Sylvia to her plight and walked through the streets to their meeting place.

She wrote later that she feared detection at any moment and was convinced that passers-by would spot her shabby clothes and ghost-like face as she hurried down the street with her homemade slippers tripping all the while as she walked. Elsa waited at her rendezvous until after 8pm but Aunt Sylvia failed to show so she decided to seek out the Hofrats, another family who had brought her food whilst she was in hiding. She walked to their home on Rotenthurmstrasse and was immediately taken in and told that Mr Heinz had been arrested for selling jewelry on the black market and further that the Nazi police had been told by an informant that the Heinz family were harboring a Jew. The Hofrats were surprised that Elsa had not been executed by this time and eventually managed to reach Aunt Sylvia – who had been at a birthday party all evening. Sylvia agreed to meet Elsa at 10.30pm and it was left for Elsa to make the journey several miles across Vienna to Erzbischofgasse – hiding her face as best she could as she walked through the darkened streets. She eventually met Sylvia and they made the rest of the journey together to Erzbischofgasse seeing nothing more sinister than courting couples on the way. When Elsa arrived Sylvia made up a bed for her in the dining room on Elsa’s own couch which Sylvia had been looking after for her all the time she had been in hiding.

The house at Erzbischofgasse. Image Courtesy of the Koditschek Family.

Elsa spent the next year hiding in the upstairs apartment in her own house that she had, in happier times, rented to Aunt Sylvia. She cooked, cleaned and did laundry for Aunt Sylvia all day long. Whenever the doorbell rang, she hid in a space behind a tailor’s mannequin hung with clothes. The SS officer - Herbert Gerbing - was rarely at home because he was stationed first in Thessaloniki and then in Paris and only visited Elsa’s old apartment downstairs for the summer holidays. When he was home, Elsa could peep out from behind the curtains and see him sitting in her garden surrounded by his family. Elsa witnessed big boxes of souvenirs arriving for Frau Gerber from her husband’s travels in Greece, France and Slovakia. She also witnessed furniture, a piano, some pictures and clothing being delivered to the house in huge trucks and unloaded and carried up the steps by Jews wearing badges. Likewise, if there was something that had to be repaired in the house or if work was needed in the garden Jewish labourers were sent to do the work.

By early 1944, life was miserable for Elsa living as Aunt Sylvia’s unpaid servant in Erzbischofgasse. Vienna was under heavy aerial bombardment and they were regularly without power and gas. On Easter Monday 1944 Frau Gerbing and her children fled Elsa’s commandeered apartment amid rumors that her husband had been beaten to death in Prague. Elsa remained in hiding until April 1945 when the Russian forces arrived in Hietzing. The Russians raided Elsa’s house and took away everything that had survived under the Nazis – even her watch and her supply of candles and matches.

Elsa continued to live in her old house in Erzbischofgasse after the end of the war and continued to look after Aunt Sylvia. Eventually she moved to Switzerland to live with her daughter. Elsa never saw her Schiele again and died in 1961. Aunt Sylvia outlived her.

The Schiele was traded during the Nazi occupation by the Galerie Würthle in Vienna and re-emerged in 1948 when it was lent to a Schiele retrospective at the Neue Galerie in Vienna by Karl Schulda. It was later sold at the Dorotheum auction house in 1950 where it was probably acquired by the Austrian collector Viktor Fogarassy.

Although the painting was acquired by the antecedents of the present owners in good faith in the 1950s, they have voluntarily agreed with Elsa Koditschek’s heirs to offer this magnificent painting at auction through a private restitution agreement.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's