VIENNA -- Three months after ending his term as U.S. ambassador to Austria, Ronald S. Lauder has become the subject of an Austrian government investigation into his purchases of Austrian artifacts and works of art. The former ambassador says the inquiry is a politically motivated attempt to discredit him because he openly expressed his views on anti-Semitism in Austria.
The Austrian parliament is investigating the government procedures that allowed Lauder to purchase and export more than 120 works valued at more than $10 million. Among the works are paintings by the fin-de-sie`cle artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
"I fell out of my chair when I first heard about this," Lauder said yesterday by telephone from New York. "It's scandalous. Everything was approved. It was all done absolutely correctly. I made doubly sure of that because of my position as ambassador. These articles in the Viennese press were put out to try and make me look bad. It's absolutely just revenge."
The actual object of the investigation is the Bundesdenkmalamt, the government agency charged with overseeing the export of valuable art and artifacts. Under Austrian law, items of artistic or cultural significance can be sold and exported only with the approval of the Bundesdenkmalamt and after having been offered to appropriate museums and the Austrian public.
Sources in the parliament, the Federal Assembly, said the investigation, still officially pending, was unlikely to produce any evidence of illegal or improper dealings. They generally agreed with Lauder that it was a thinly disguised attempt to get back at him for his comments about Austria in an October interview that received wide attention.
In the interview, Lauder said that latent anti-Semitism was widespread in Austria and that the nation needed to come to grips with the role its people played in the Third Reich after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in the Anschluss of 1938.
"I wasn't attacked on whether the views I stated were right or wrong," Lauder said yesterday. "But the Freedom Party was extraordinarily upset with my interview, and they reacted with this."
The Freedom Party is Austria's third-largest political party. Traditionally seen as conservative and libertarian, it has veered sharply toward the nationalistic right under Jorg Haider, its current leader.
The investigation was officially instigated Dec. 15 at the request of Fritz Probst, cultural spokesman for the Freedom Party. He could not be reached for comment.
As part of the inquiry, the Bundesdenkmalamt was asked to supply a list of Lauder's purchases and explain how he received permission to buy and export so many items.
The list was published on Monday, and many Austrians were shocked at the extent of the purchases. Lauder, however, said he saw no reason to defend his actions.
"I have been and am one of the leading proponents of Austrian art and culture in the United States," he said. "My family bought the Klimt in question in 1975 or 1976."
The Lauder family, which is Jewish, has underwritten many Austrian artistic and cultural exhibitions in recent years, including the highly popular "Vienna 1900" exhibition in New York, Lauder said. The family also paid for the refurbishing of the Sezession building and a face lift for the Albertina Museum, two Vienna landmarks.
Because of such sponsorship, Vienna magazines and newspapers have suggested that Austrian government officials may have influenced the agency's decisions on Lauder's behalf and that proper procedures were not followed.
Many of the news articles seem to have a nationalistic slant and derogatory tone. One referred to Lauder, who is board chairman of the cosmetic company Este'e Lauder International, as "the cosmetic billionaire and hobby diplomat."
Gerhard Sailer, president of the Bundesdenkmalamt, has responded to the allegations by saying, "I was surprised to learn from the newspapers that politicians were involved. No one intervened with me."
Sailer denied that some of the artworks were not first offered to museums. He has suggested that this is, in any case, irrelevant because the museums are emerging from a major financial crisis and lack the funds to acquire the paintings involved.
Art dealers in Vienna said some of the items Lauder bought had been for sale for years but had drawn little interest because of their prices or relative lack of significance. Lauder bought some of them long before he became ambassador.
The Klimt painting "Lady With Feather Hat," which Hermann Filitz, head of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, called one of Klimt's major works, was exported in 1979, Lauder said.
While the Schiele painting "Winter Trees" is valued at more than $2 million, it is not considered one of the artist's finest works, according to Filitz. But he would have liked to see it remain in Austria, he said.
Lauder sees a certain irony to the matter. The Klimt and Schiele paintings originally belonged to Jews and were seized by the Nazis after the Anschluss.