The gold-encrusted painting of a dark-haired beauty was more than just a painting to Maria Altmann, it was a piece of her family's history that had been stolen. A masterpiece, in fact, worth $135 million. Though well into her 80s, Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria during World War II, went to battle over five Gustav Klimt paintings that belonged to her family. One of the paintings is of Altmann's aunt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I." Starting in 1998, more than 91 years after the Austrian painter finished the piece, Altmann began a legal battle with the Austrian government to get it back. The 1907 masterpiece hung in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere in Vienna. The Austrian government said Altmann's aunt, who died in 1925, had willed it to the Austrian national gallery. But Altmann's lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, argued the claim was invalid, and the family's art collection was plundered by the Nazis, according to an Associated Press story. "This was the most high profile restitution to date," said Monica Dugot, the international director of restitution and senior vice president at Christie's. "(The) case took the heirs seven years of legal action in both the U.S. and Austria, including taking their case to the Supreme Court. Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, was ultimately successful and won back the five pictures from Austria."Dugot and attorney Michael Lacher, who focuses on investigation and restitution of stolen art at his New York based law firm, Anderson Kill & Olick, P.C., will lead tonight's Vail Symposium presentation "The World's Most Wanted Art: Recovering Looted Art" at the Edwards Interfaith Chapel. After the golden portrait returned from Austria in 2006, where it'd been hanging at the Austrian Gallery Belvedere in Vienna, it sold for $135 million, a record amount for a painting at the time, according to the Associated Press, and now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York."The picture does have a story of it's own to tell, of where it lived - in luxury in a private home - and then how it was robbed from that house," Altmann said on a video recording posted on YouTube. "And then it was hidden, and then it lived in the museum, and now it travels to another country, to be seen by other people, more people and that's very beautiful for me,." Altmann passed away in 2006.
Dollar wise, the looting of priceless art during World War II is "the largest theft of anything in the history of the world," said Lacher, who lives part time in Vail and part time in New York City."It was known as the rape of Europe," Lacher said. "As far as we can identify - no one has an accurate figure - somewhere between 600,000 and one million masterpieces were stolen. Of those, no more than 100,000 have really been identified and fewer than half have been returned to their rightful owners."The Klimt paintings are just one example of a dozen or so cases Dugot will touch on tonight. After she speaks, Lacher will provide what he calls the "living room perspective.""I'll be putting the audience in that living room, when the Gestapo and fascists came to rip things off the wall, and give them the understanding of the process, the odyssey of lost art and lost souls," Lacher said. "It's a search and rescue mission. I call my talk 'flashlight in a tunnel,' which is exactly what the process is like. The tunnel is a tunnel of legal obstacles and national obstacles to recover from foreign countries, with foreign laws. And it's also reopening a lot of old wounds as you track back to Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, France and more."James Ruh, the chairman of the Vail Symposium's board of directors, met Lacher about a year ago, and listened in awe as he explained how he helps clients recover lost art."His story is fascinating on so many levels that I thought it would appeal to almost everyone," Ruh said. "Michael's narrative involves complex legal issues, issues of international diplomacy, art expertise, good old fashioned detective work and very human stories that will touch you. All of these issues are very current."Indeed it is. Just this week the New York Times reported on a missing Monet painting that disappeared during a Gestapo raid in 1941. The case has two of France's most wealthy and prominent families pitted against one and other."It's a fascinating story and those of us in this world, know of many stories of that gallery and that family and collectors like them," Lacher said."Michael and Monica are truly two of the world's best known experts on the subject of art restitution and their talk will keep you spellbound," Ruh said. High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2984.