Court urges Austria to return Klimt paintings stolen by Nazis to heir of Jewish owners
VIENNA, Austria – It was a seven-year legal struggle with dazzling stakes – five precious paintings by Austrian icon Gustav Klimt that a California woman says were stolen from her Jewish family by the Nazis.Now, a court ruling made public on Monday will likely resolve the high-profile case against Austria’s government in her favor.The Austrian arbitration court determined the country is legally obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann, the heir of the family who owned them before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, the Austria Press Agency reported.Altmann said she was awakened by a telephone call from her attorney at 7:30 a.m. Monday with the good news.”I tell you, frankly, I had a very good feeling the last few days. I had a very positive feeling thinking things will go all right,” said Altmann, reached by telephone at her home in Los Angeles. “I’m thrilled that it came to this end.”Though the court’s ruling is nonbinding, both parties have previously said they will abide by it, and Austria’s government is expected to give up the works of art that have been displayed for decades in Vienna’s ornate Belvedere castle.That would represent the costliest concession since Austria began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis. The pictures have been estimated to be worth at least $150 million.But for lovers of Klimt, at least one of the disputed paintings – the oil and gold-encrusted portrait “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” – is priceless. Altmann is the 90-year-old niece of Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925. The subject’s family commissioned her famous portrait and owned it, along with the four other Klimt paintings disputed in the case.Jane Kallir, co-director of New York City’s Galerie St. Etienne, which introduced Klimt to the United States in 1959, calls the 1907 portrait “literally priceless.” Stylistically similar to Klimt’s world-renowned “The Kiss,” the painting is replicated on T-shirts, cups and other souvenirs.Austria considers the paintings part of its national heritage. Klimt was a founder of the Vienna Secession art movement that for many became synonymous with Jugendstil, the German and central European version of Art Nouveau.Bloch-Bauer represented the cream of Viennese society – a Jugendstil “Mona Lisa” with her shock of black hair, full lips, strong hands and expressive brown eyes set against Klimt’s gold and gilt framework. As early as 1908, a Vienna art critic described it as the portrait of “an idol in a golden shrine.”Lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, who represents Altmann, said the court’s decision fulfilled all her hopes and expectations.””It will make Mrs. Altmann … very happy,” he told the Austria Press Agency.The case stemmed from a 1998 Austrian law that required federal museums to review their holdings for any works seized by the Nazis and determine whether they were obtained without remuneration.A formal announcement of the court decision, and Austrian government reaction, were expected Tuesday.Lawyers for the two sides have fought since 1998 over rights to the famed portrait and four other paintings – a lesser-known Bloch-Bauer portrait as well as “Apfelbaum” (“Apple Tree”), “Buchenwald/Birkenwald (“Beech Forest/Birch Forest) and “Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee” (Houses in Unterach on Attersee Lake”).The two sides began mediation in March, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that Altmann, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, could sue the Austrian government.After Bloch-Bauer died, the five pictures remained in her family’s possession. Her husband fled to Switzerland after the Nazis took over Austria. The pictures were then taken by the Nazis and the Austrian Gallery, where they are now displayed, was made the formal owner.Attorneys for Austria have argued Altmann’s aunt intended to give the works to the Austrian Gallery. In any case, they say, the conflict should be settled in an Austrian court.Altmann’s lawyer contended the paintings were looted by the Nazis, and as such, U.S. law mandates their return.In an interview six years ago, Altmann described Nazis raiding the family home. She recalled men “stripping me of my engagement ring, taking Aunt Adele’s diamond necklace and slipping them into their pockets. And other men, in uniform taking our new car – pushing it because they couldn’t find the keys.”A decision to return to paintings would be painful for Austria, even as it seeks to show it is ready to comply with all serious restitution claims arising from wrongs during the Nazi era.Aside from art objects, Austria also has returned properties in government possession that were looted by the Nazis.The country also begun paying compensation to Nazi victims from a $210 million fund endowed by the federal government, the city of Vienna and Austrian industries. The fund was created in 2001 to compensate those stripped of businesses, property, bank accounts and insurance policies under the Third Reich.Austria was among the most fervent supporters of Adolf Hitler. But recognition of the need for restitution was delayed because history books long depicted the country as Germany’s first victim, through annexation in 1938.Vienna was home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 200,000 before World War II. Today, it numbers about 7,000.Vail, Colorado
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