Friday, December 13, 2002
Suit Permitted Against Austria Over Art Allegedly Stolen by Nazis
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Sovereign immunity laws do not bar a Los Angeles trial against Austria over the alleged Nazi-era theft of priceless artwork, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The ruling means Maria V. Altmann of Cheviot Hills can press forward with her suit to recover six Gustav Klimt paintings owned by her uncle, Czech banker and sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch.
Austria could not possibly have expected sovereign immunity to apply to artworks that were allegedly stolen by Nazis and retained illegally by the government after the war, Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. That, and the fact that the paintings have been reproduced and sold numerous times in the United States in the form of posters and catalogs, is enough to overcome protections of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Wardlaw said.
In fact, some of the Klimt works apparently have become part of American commercial and popular culture. It is possible to purchase reproductions of the most famous of the paintings—the golden, Byzantine-influenced “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”—on wristwatches and other goods. There are Klimt computer games, playing cards and stationery.
Klimt was already famous in the early 1900s as co-founder of the Vienna Secessionists when Bloch commissioned him to paint Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting is often grouped with Art Nouveau works and signals a departure from the classical development of European painting.
Bloch displayed the work, a second portrait of his wife and four Klimt landscapes in his Vienna home, but lost them to Nazi looters in Germany’s 1938 invasion of Austria. Bloch fled to Switzerland and died soon after the war’s end.
Bloch was Jewish. Altmann said his property was taken as part of an “Aryanization” program.
Rather than return the paintings, Austria kept them in the a state-owned gallery, asserting that Bloch’s wife wanted the gallery to have them on her death and that an attorney for Altmann’s brother concluded an agreement to “donate” the works in 1948.
Altmann sued soon after a scandal over other allegedly stolen Austrian paintings rocked the art world.
In 1998, the City of New York seized two Egon Sciele paintings, claiming Nazis expropriated them illegally. The Austrian government responded by opening the culture ministry’s archives to permit research, in the process uncovering documents that showed the Austrian gallery’s claim to the paintings was based on the will of Adele Bloch-Bauer—Bloch’s young wife and the subject of two of the paintings.
The will included a “request” that the paintings be left to the museum—an insufficient instruction under Austrian law to constitute a bequest.
Altmann, herself an immigrant from Austria who moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, first brought suit in Austria, but laws there requiring her to pay fees amounting to a percentage of the property in question would have resulted in a $1.6 million payment just to prosecute the case.
She qualified for a vastly reduced fee but abandoned the case anyway because it still would have required too much money to bring the suit.
Instead, she brought suit in 2000 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Austria challenge jurisdiction, but Judge Florence-Marie Cooper of the Central District of California said the suit could go forward.
Wardlaw, joined by Judge William Fletcher and U.S. Distirct Judge Ronald M. Whyte of the Northern District of California, sitting on assignment, agreed.
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act—which includes an exception for improperly expropriated works—applies retroactively to cover the six paintings because Austria could not reasonably expect “to receive immunity from the executive branch of the United States for its complicity in and perpetuation of the discriminatory expropriation of the Klimt paintings,” Wardlaw said.
Under the act, Altmann satisfied a requirement of showing a nexus to an agency engaged in commercial activity in the United States—the sale of Klimt reproductions here by the Austrian Gallery.
Altmann’s attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, is the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, who fled Austria for the United States around the time that Bloch-Bauer went to Switzerland, and the son of retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Schoenberg.
Austria was represented by Scott P. Cooper of Proskauer Rose.
The case is Altmann v. Republic of Austria, 01-56003.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company