Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Panel Rules for L.A. Woman in Dispute Over Nazi-Looted Art
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Five Gustav Klimt paintings looted by the Nazis during World War II belong to a Los Angeles woman whose family owned the works before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, a Vienna-based arbitration panel ruled yesterday.
Altmann, now 89, said she was awakened by a phone call from her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, at 7:30 a.m. Los Angeles time with the good news— though she said she never doubted the high-profile case would go in her favor in the end. The Klimt paintings have been estimated to be worth at least $150 million and are considered national treasures by Austria, which considers them part of its national heritage.
“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 Cheviot Hills. “I’m thrilled that it came to this end.”
Though the arbitrators’ 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.
Their return would represent the costliest concession since Austria began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis several years ago.
One of the disputed paintings — the oil and gold-encrusted portrait “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” — has been called priceless. Altmann is the 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.
Altmann said yesterdaythat she remembers the paintings from her childhood—as well as the bitter parade of events that ripped them from the family. The Nazis invaded Austria just months after she was married at age 21 in December 1937, she said.
“Hitler invaded in March 1938 and everything after that went downhill,” said Altmann, as supporters and her attorney celebrated and fielded press calls at her home. “My husband was in the concentration camp and everything was taken — but material values at the time didn’t matter one bit. It was only after that it did matter.”
Schoenberg said it was too early to say exactly what would happen to the paintings in light of the court’s ruling. He said Altmann has four siblings— two in Vancouver, B.C., one in Montreal and one in the Northern California town of Alamo— who are also heirs with claims to the artwork.
“We’re going to see how things play out now. I don’t exactly know what the next step is,” he said. “They’re going to have to decide that collectively and they haven’t made that decision yet because it’s a little too early.”
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.
The Austrian government is expected to react to the arbitrators’ decision tomorrow.
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. The high court’s 6-3 ruling was based on the “expropriation” exception to the protections granted foreign governments from U.S. civil process by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Both the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court agreed with U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper that Altmann could obtain relief in U.S. courts if she proved that the property was taken in violation of international law; that the Austrian Gallery, which held title to the works, is “owned or operated” by an agency or instrumentality of a foreign government, and that the agency or instrumentality is engaged in commercial activity in the United States.
The Supreme Court held that the FSIA, rather than the law in effect in the 1940s when the paintings came into Austria’s possession, determines the scope of any immunity in the case.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company