LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Maria Altmann, whose seven-year battle to recover her family’s Nazi-looted paintings riveted the art and legal worlds, has died.
Altmann died at her home in Los Angeles on Feb. 7 following a prolonged illness. She was 94.
Stripped of her childhood wealth, she became a multimillionaire in her late 80s after forcing the Austrian government to return five family-owned works by the Viennese art nouveau painter Gustav Klimt.
Subsequently the paintings were sold for a total of $327.7 million.
The crown jewel was the iconic “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” Altmann’s aunt, which is now on permanent display at Ronald S. Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York.
Maria Viktoria was born in Vienna in 1916 into a fabulously wealthy family of assimilated Jews whose possessions and art were taken by the Nazi regime after the 1938 annexation of Austria.
In 1999, E. Randol Schoenberg, a young Los Angeles lawyer, took up the seemingly hopeless effort to recover the Klimt painting. He took the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2006 Austria acceded to his demands.
Finding refuge in Los Angeles after World War II, Altmann supported herself by selling clothes for mature women from her home.
Even after regaining most of her fortune, she continued to live in a modest home in the Cheviot Hills section of Los Angeles and refused to part with her “beloved 1994 Chevy.”
Altmann, an ardent opera buff, had little involvement with the Jewish community. In 2005, she said, “Unfortunately I wasn’t really raised Jewish. My husband, whose family came from Poland, was very strongly Jewish.
“We used to have arguments about that. I agreed to have a ritual circumcision for our sons if he let me have a Christmas tree.”
Perhaps her closest relationship to the Jewish people, she said, derived from a sense of shared fate.