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Supreme Court to Hear Stolen Art Suit

Tue Sep 30, 2003 4:20 PM ET
 

By GINA HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - An elderly woman who fled the Nazis is asking the Supreme Court to help her get back $150 million worth of paintings stolen from her family 65 years ago in Austria.

The court announced Tuesday that it would decide if Maria Altmann can sue the Austrian government in U.S. courts. It is one of a group of appeals the court added to cases to be heard in the new term that begins next week.
 

The Austrian case raises a technical issue about when foreign governments can be sued in U.S. courts over old disputes. The details of the case, however, are striking: a wealthy Austrian family whose belongings were pillaged by the Nazis, their flight to safety and their long-distance effort to reclaim their property.
 

Altmann, an 87-year-old widow who lives in Los Angeles, wants the return of six Gustav Klimt (news - web sites) paintings, including two colorful, impressionistic portraits of her aunt.
 

"The Supreme Court is here to do justice. And in this case justice would be that we would get returned what was taken from us," she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "This is the first time I've had anything to do with the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites). It's a great honor, but on the other hand I'm a little scared."
 

Courts in California have said she can sue the Austrian Gallery and the Austrian government in the United States. Austria appealed to the high court to stop the suit.
 

At issue is what to do with disputes predating a 1952 U.S. government policy that shielded some countries from lawsuits while allowing suits against some foreign government commercial ventures.
 

Scott P. Cooper of Los Angeles, one of Austria's lawyers, had told justices the case was important for U.S. foreign relations.
 

"The diplomatic ramifications of a United States court holding that Austria, a nation friendly to the United States, must appear in a United States court to answer charges that it is actively advancing Nazi war crimes in connection with a matter of extreme domestic importance to Austria, cannot be understated," Cooper wrote.
 

He said pending cases involving France, Japan and Poland would be affected.
 

Cooper said it only made sense for the dispute to be settled in Austria, where the art is. Historical documents, written in German, are also there.
 

Altmann's aunt, who died in 1925, had asked that the art be donated to the state gallery, but her uncle, who died in exile in Switzerland in 1945, specified that his possessions should go to Altmann and two other family members. Altmann is the only one of the three still living.
 

The paintings by Klimt, founder of the Vienna Secession art movement, include two of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, a portrait of the aunt's close friend and three landscapes.
 

Altmann said she would like them to hang in museums in America and Canada. She plans to attend the Supreme Court's argument in the case, likely in February or March.
 

"If I'm alive and well I will come," said Altmann, who turns 88 in February. "I just certainly hope that the court will decide what is right."
 

The case is Austria v. Altmann, 03-13.
 

Supreme Court to Hear Austria Appeal on Paintings
Tue Sep 30,10:30 AM ET

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites) said on Tuesday it would decide whether the Austrian government and itsnational museum can be sued in this country by a Los Angeles woman seeking to recover six paintings she says the Nazis took from her uncle during World War II.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal by the European nation and its Austrian Gallery claiming U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction over the dispute.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2000 in federal court in California by Maria Altmann alleging the wrongful taking of six Gustav Klimt (news - web sites) paintings, valued at $135 million. The paintings are housed in the Austrian Gallery.

The six paintings were owned by Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch, a Jewish Czech sugar magnate, and included a portrait of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. When she died in 1925, she left a will requesting that her husband leave the artwork to the Austrian Gallery when he passed away.

The paintings were seized by the Nazis when they invaded Austria in 1938. Bloch, who had supported anti-Nazi efforts before Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, fled Vienna for Switzerland, where he died in 1945.

Bloch, in his will, left everything he owned to his nephew and nieces, including Altmann. His family agreed in 1946 that the paintings belonged to the Austrian government.

Altmann, who fled to California to escape the Nazis and is Ferdinand Bloch's sole surviving heir, claimed in her lawsuit that her family was extorted into signing away their rights to the paintings in 1946 and had been lied to by the Austrian government.

A federal judge in California and then the appeals court ruled U.S. courts do have jurisdiction over the lawsuit.

Federal law, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, generally bars lawsuits against foreign governments, but there are certain exceptions.

The appeals court said the case was covered by an exception because it involved an alleged taking of property in violation of international law.

In its appeal, Austria said a Supreme Court review "is necessary to resolve an important dispute concerning the proper venue over foreign states." It has argued that any lawsuit should be pursued in Austria, not the United States.

Altmann's lawyers urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, allowing the case to proceed so the claims can be decided on the merits during her lifetime. She is 87, they told the court.

The justices, who open their new term next week, will hear arguments in the case early next year, with a decision due by the end of June.
 

Supreme Court Takes Case on Nazi-Looted Art
By LINDA GREENHOUSE
New York Times

Published: September 30, 2003

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 A closely watched legal dispute over the ownership of works of art once looted by the Nazis reached the Supreme Court on Tuesday as the justices accepted an appeal by the Republic of Austria and one of its state art museums on whether American courts have jurisdiction to resolve such cases.
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An 87-year-old California woman, the niece and heir of a prominent art collector, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who fled Vienna in 1938 and died shortly after the end of World War II, has spent decades trying get back the remains of the collection he left behind. At issue are six paintings by Gustav Klimt, including two portraits of Mr. Bloch-Bauer's wife, Adele. The six paintings, now in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna, are worth more than $100 million.

Austria maintains that the paintings were left to the state and its museums under the will of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925, and that the fact that the Nazis had illegitimate possession of them during the war does not change the fact that they properly belong to Austria now.

The niece, Maria V. Altmann, disputes that interpretation, maintaining that her aunt's preferences about the eventual disposition of the paintings never achieved the status of a formal bequest to the government. Ms. Altmann filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Los Angeles three years ago.

There has not yet been a trial to sort out the competing interpretations, and the Supreme Court will not decide the merits of the case. Rather, the question for the justices is whether the case can proceed at all under the terms of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 27-year-old federal law that defines the terms for suing foreign governments in the federal courts. Although the issue is a technical one, it could be decisive in resolving a variety of cases involving the behavior of foreign governments and their agencies during World War II.

In June, for example, the federal appeals court in New York reinstated a suit by Holocaust survivors and their heirs against the French national railroad, which transported tens of thousands of Jews and others to the Nazi death camps.

APA0693 5 KI 0307 Di, 30.Sep 2003

Kunst/Nationalsozialismus/Gericht/USA/Österreich

Klimt-Bilder: Revision über Zuständigkeit von US-Gerichten zugelassen

Utl.: Damit verlängert sich der vorläufige Verfahrensstopp im in Los

Angeles anhängigen Beweisverfahren =

Washington (APA/Reuters) - Der US Supreme Court hat heute, Dienstag, bekannt gegeben, über die Zuständigkeit von US-Gerichten im Rechtsstreit um das Eigentum an sechs wertvollen Klimt-Bildern zu entscheiden. Das Verfahren soll Anfang kommenden Jahres stattfinden, mit einer Entscheidung sei bis Ende Juni zu rechnen. Kalifornische Gerichte hatten zuvor eine Zuständigkeit von US-Gerichten bejaht. Mit der Zulassung der Revision der Republik Österreich dagegen verlängert sich der vorläufige Verfahrensstopp im in Los Angeles anhängigen Beweisverfahren um den rechtmäßigen Eigentümer der Gemälde.

Im Prozess geht es um einen Rückgabeanspruch der Bilder von Gustav Klimt "Adele Bloch-Bauer I", "Adele Bloch-Bauer II", "Apfelbaum I", "Buchenwald (Birkenwald)" und "Häuser in Unterach am Attersee" sowie "Amalie Zuckerkandl". Die ersten fünf davon sind im Testament von Adele Bloch-Bauer erwähnt, in dem sie ihren Mann Ferdinand bat, nach seinem Tode die Bilder der Republik Österreich bzw. der Österreichischen Galerie zu schenken. Der jüdische Industrielle und Gegner der Nationalsozialisten, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, wurde aber in der NS-Zeit enteignet und musste in die Schweiz flüchten, die Bilder wurden noch zu seinen Lebzeiten von einem von den Nazis eingesetzten "kommissarischen Verwalter" an das Museum übergeben bzw. verkauft. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer hatte in seinem Testament seinen Neffen und seine zwei Nichten als Alleinerben eingesetzt. Das Gerichtsverfahren soll klären, wer rechtmäßiger Eigentümer der Bilder ist: Die Republik Österreich oder Bloch-Bauer-Nichte und -Erbin Maria Altmann.

Die heute 87-jährige Maria Altmann hatte im August 2000 vor einem Gericht in Los Angeles ihre Klage gegen die Republik Österreich eingebracht. Im Verfahren wurde bisher um die Zuständigkeit gerungen. Die Klägerin will ihren Anspruch vor einem US-Gericht einklagen, die Republik Österreich bestreitet diese Zuständigkeit. Die Haltung Österreichs wird durch eine Stellungnahme der US-Regierung unterstützt, die aber für die Gerichte nicht bindend ist. Die Anwälte der Klägerin hatten das US-Höchstgericht dazu aufgefordert die Revision abzuweisen um das Verfahren noch zu Altmanns Lebzeiten zu Ende zu bringen.

(Forts. mögl.) leh

APA0693 2003-09-30/17:46

301746 Sep 03

___________________________________________________________________

APA0793 5 KI 0248 F. APA0693/30.09 Di, 30.Sep 2003

Kunst/Nationalsozialismus/Gericht/USA/Österreich

Klimt-Bilder 2 - Altmann-Anwalt für Verfahren zuversichtlich

Utl.: Republik Österreich brachte Fall zum Supreme Court Washington/Los Angeles/APA =

Randol Schoenberg, Anwalt der Klägerin Maria Altmann, die von der Republik Österreich die Rückgabe von sechs wertvollen Klimt-Bildern fordert, zeigt sich auch nach der Entscheidung des US-Höchstgerichts, das Verfahren aufzunehmen, weiterhin zuversichtlich. Im Rechtsstreit mit der Republik habe seine Mandantin, die Nichte von Adele Bloch-Bauer, bei den US-Gerichten im Streit um die Zuständigkeit bisher immer obsiegt, auch beim Höchstgericht würden die von seiner Seite vorgelegten Argumente letztlich erfolgreich sein, meinte Schoenberg am Dienstag im Gespräch mit der APA. "Wir haben eine gute Chance, den Fall beim Höchstgericht zu gewinnen".

Mit Sorge betrachte er aber den Zeitplan, da Maria Altmann im Februar ihren 88. Geburtstag feiere. Durch den Gang der Republik zum Höchstgericht werde das Verfahren ein weiteres Jahr länger dauern. Hoffentlich werde die Klägerin den Ausgang des Verfahrens noch erleben, sagte Schoenberg. Das Verfahren war auf Grund einer Beschwerde der Republik Österreich zum Höchstgericht gekommen, Österreich hatte die Entscheidungen der Gerichte in erster und zweiter Instanz in Kalifornien, die im Interesse der Klägerin die Zuständigkeit der US-Gerichtsbarkeit bejahten, immer angefochten.

Das Verfahren würde aber auch nach einem hoffentlich noch lange nicht eintretenden Ableben von Altmann weitergeführt, so der Anwalt. Dann würden ihre Erben die Klägerstellung übernehmen. Bisher habe sich der Rechtsstreit lediglich mit formalen Aspekten beschäftigt, die inhaltlichen Beweise für das Eigentum Altmanns an den Klimt-Bildern seien noch nicht behandelt worden. Schoenberg erwartet eine Höchstgerichts-Entscheidung im Mai oder Juni 2004, im Jänner oder Februar werde es zu einer Verhandlung vor dem Gericht in Washington DC kommen.

(Schluss) gru/an/sm

APA0793 2003-09-30/21:54

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