LOS ANGELES (Jan. 17)
Following seven years of legal and diplomatic maneuvering over the ownership of Nazi-looted art, Maria Altmann has won her battle to recover paintings valued at $200 million from the Austrian government. After the case was submitted to binding arbitration, a three-man court of Austrian legal experts decided unanimously on Sunday that five paintings by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt belonged to Altmann and her four co-heirs.
The paintings were seized in Vienna by the Nazis in 1938 from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar magnate and Altmann’s uncle.
Altmann, a resident of Los Angeles, who will celebrate her 90th birthday next month, greeted the decision as “fabulous,” adding, “It is wonderful that justice has finally been done. That was my whole goal.”
The most famous of the paintings is a gold-flecked portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, currently a centerpiece of the Austrian National Gallery and one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.
E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s attorney, said that most likely this portrait, and a second portrait of the same subject, would remain at the Austrian gallery, after payment of compensation to Altmann.
It is expected that the three remaining paintings will be transferred to Altmann.
Schoenberg predicted that his client’s victory will encourage other governments and museums, especially in France and Spain, to arrive at settlements on other cases of art taken from Jews during the Nazi era.
Until two years ago, Altmann, mother of four and grandmother of six, supported herself by running a fashionable dress shop for women older than 40. Regardless of her new wealth, she plans no changes in her lifestyle: She intends to remain in the middle-class home in which she has lived for 30 years and to continue driving her ’94 Chevrolet.
Schoenberg savored the end of the lengthy dispute, noting that “at the beginning, we didn’t think we had any chance at all.”
A decisive break in the proceedings came in June 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court, despite the opposition of the Austrian and American governments.
The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light” and agree to arbitration, Schoenberg said.