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Supreme Court Rules That Austria Can Be Sued over Nazi-looted Art

June 8, 2004
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A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Holocaust victims’ families can sue Austria to recover Nazi-looted paintings could have repercussions for other cases against European governments. The court ruled Monday that Americans can sue foreign governments in U.S. courts over looted art, stolen property and war crimes dating back to the Holocaust era.

The decision is an important legal milestone and a personal triumph for Maria Altmann, 88, a Los Angeles resident who is seeking the return from Austria of paintings the Nazis confiscated in 1938.

Involved are six paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, now valued at $150 million, including a stunning portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt.

Austria has been fighting the return of the paintings, now hanging in its national gallery, arguing that sovereign states are immune to lawsuits filed in American courts.

However, a 6-3 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Altman! n’s contention that there were exceptions to the immunity, in this case for property seized in violation of international law.

Austrian Consul General Peter Launsky-Tiefenthal said in Los Angeles that he had not yet received any reaction from his government.

The court decision likely will have major international ramifications, said Michael Bazyler of California’s Whittier Law School, who analyzed the Altmann case in his book “Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in American Courts.”

The most immediate impact will be on pending actions against the French and Polish governments, which also have claimed immunity against lawsuits in U.S. courts.

Holocaust survivors and their heirs are suing the French railroad system for transporting them to concentration camps. Other suits are pending against Poland for the return of seized property, Bazyler said.

Germany also may be open to new property claims, said law professor Burt Neuborne of New York Universit! y, who was the lead counsel in suits to recover Holocaust-era deposits in Swiss banks.

Other beneficiaries could be Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in World War II.

The decision will not affect a number of class action suits against European insurance companies or slave-labor suits against foreign factories and mines, since such suits are against private companies, not governments, Bazyler and Neuborne agreed.

The Supreme Court decision leaves an opening for the U.S. State Department to intervene on behalf of Austria, though a recent U.S.-Austrian treaty is ambiguous on that point.

In any case, the Jewish community should press the State Department to stay out of the follow-up on the Altmann case, said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, which filed an amicus brief in the case.

The case now goes back to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where a trial will determine the original question of whether the paintings belong to Altmann or to the Austrian nat! ional gallery.

The case was a milestone not just for Altmann, who came to the United States as a refugee from Austria, but for her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg. Schoenberg is a descendant of a prominent Austrian-Jewish family; his grandfather was the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg, who single-handedly argued the case against lawyers for the Austrian and American governments in his first Supreme Court appearance, termed his victory “a dream come true.”

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