Woman goes to Supreme Court to recover art taken by Nazis
LOS ANGELES - When she looks at the print that hangs on her living room
wall, Maria Altmann can't help but wince and recall when she used to gaze
upon the real thing, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele
The painting, portraying the haunting face of an attractive woman encased
triangles of splendid gold, is considered one of Klimt's best. Altmann, who
is Adele Bloch Bauer's niece, used to see it hanging in her aunt's home in
Vienna when she was young.
It and five other Klimt paintings were seized by the Nazis soon after
came to power in Austria in 1938. The works, worth as much as $150 million,
now hang in the Austrian Gallery, and Altmann is going to the U.S. Supreme
Court on Wednesday to try to get them back.
But the retired operator of a Beverly Hills clothing boutique doubts
live long enough to see the paintings hang in her Los Angeles home, even if
the court rules in her favor.
"It's not as if they'll immediately order marshals into the gallery
them and bring them back to me," said Altmann, a tall, still-handsome woman
The issue before the court next week is whether Altmann has the right
bring a lawsuit in a U.S. court against the Austrian government seeking the
return of her aunt's paintings. After a California court ruled in her favor,
the Supreme Court agreed to consider Austria's appeal.
The outcome could have broad implications for other cases, including
pending Supreme Court appeals that involve a lawsuit against Japan by women
who claim they were used as sex slaves during World War II and a suit by
Holocaust survivors and heirs against the French national railroad for
transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps.
Altmann's lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, said his client's case is simple:
"It's art work that was looted by the Nazis, and U.S. law states that it
must be given back."
But an attorney for Austria said Altmann's aunt clearly intended for
Austrian Gallery to have the paintings and, in any case, that any conflict
should be settled in that country's courts.
"There is no question the Nazis seized this property," said Scott P.
a Los Angeles attorney representing Austria in the dispute. "The issue is
whether the U.S. has the power to compel a foreign power to turn them over.
The gallery where the paintings hang is a federal museum. That's why this is
a case of sovereign immunity."
Altmann, whose five siblings and husband are dead, said she would have
brought suit in Austria but the cost of doing so was prohibitively
If she gets the paintings back, she would like to see them placed in
a U.S. or Canadian museum.
According to Cooper, Bauer, who was a friend of Klimt's, left behind
instructions when she died in 1925 that the paintings go to her husband,
Ferdinand, and that upon his death they be turned over to the Austrian
But Altmann said that when her uncle died in exile in 1945 he left behind
his own instructions ordering that the paintings, if they were recovered, be
handed over to surviving family members.
In 1948, Cooper said, two of Altmann's brothers traveled to Vienna and,
help from Allied military forces still in the country, did indeed recover
the paintings. He said the brothers, who have since died, gave them to the
gallery, in accordance with their aunt's wishes.
If the Supreme Court rules in Altmann's favor, the case will go to a
court for trial.
"We'll try it on the merits, which is about when Austria obtained the
title to the paintings," Schoenberg said. "If we argue on the merits,
Austria will have to return them.
"If we don't win, well," he said, pausing for a long breath. "That's
Emory prof helps American sue Austria
Maria Altmann's aunt is depicted in this portrait, part of a collection
taken by Nazis during World War II. Altmann is suing the Austrian government
to have the paintings returned to her. --Special
By Jeremy Stahl
Asst. News Editor
February 13, 2004
Sixty-five years after the Nazis looted the home of Austrian Jew Ferdinand
Bloch-Bauer and stole six paintings now worth more than $100 million,
Bloch-Bauer«s 87-year-old niece is using the American court system to try to
get the paintings back.
And an Emory law professor is trying to help.
Law Professor David Bederman has filed an Amicus Curiae brief on behalf
Maria Altmann, who is suing the Austrian government for the return of the
Gustav Klimt paintings.
This month, the United States Supreme Court will read Bederman«s —friend
the court‚ brief, which will accompany Altmann«s own argument.
—The question before the U.S. Supreme Court is, ŚCan [Altmann] sue Austria
in United States court?«‚ Bederman said.
After Altmann«s original claim to retrieve the paintings was denied
Austria, she sued the country in a California court.
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 says Americans cannot sue
sovereign states, with a few explicit exceptions. One such exception
involves cases where foreign governments have seized an American citizen«s
—The problem is that the law was passed in 1976, so the question is,
it apply to acts that occurred before 1976?«‚ Bederman said.
He said it should, arguing that a 1950 Austrian Supreme Court decision
allowed Austrian citizens to sue Czechoslovakia for the return of seized
—What«s good for the goose is good for the gander,‚ Bederman said.
But Scott Cooper, who is representing Austria in front of the Supreme
said Bederman«s argument about jurisdiction is based on Austrian case law,
which is irrelevant to American law.
—Both American law and Austrian law treat property differently,‚ Cooper
said. —What we«re applying is American law.‚
The Austrian court originally ruled against Altmann, because Bloch-Bauer«s
wife«s will left the paintings to the Austrian Gallery after Bloch-Bauer
died. The paintings were stolen by the Nazis before Bloch-Bauer died,
though, and he fled to Switzerland, where he began litigation against
Austria to retrieve the lost art.
Bloch-Bauer died in 1945, before he could see his paintings returned.
After World War II ended, the Austrian government retained the paintings
the Austrian Gallery in Vienna, where they remain to this day.
—The Austrian government«s view [toward Altmann] is that the uncle willed
all this stuff to the Austrian government, ŚSo go away,«‚ Bederman said.
In its brief, Austria«s counsel argued that the events —occurred before
after World War II, independent of Nazi atrocities.‚
The United States filed a brief in support of Austria, a move Bederman
Bederman said the U.S. is afraid that if the Court rules in favor of
Altmann, the federal government will be liable in lawsuits from foreign
—The United States is worried that the shoe will be on the other foot,‚
said. —The Solicitor General is more worried about protecting the U.S.
against suit by foreigners in foreign courts than they are about protecting
rights of the American citizens.‚
Bederman argued before the Supreme Court in 2002. He represented a business
professor at Kennesaw State University who claimed he was unjustly accused
of sexual harassment and that anti-Semitic administrators targeted him for
While Bederman said he will not likely attend the Feb. 24 court date
he has to teach, Altmann is flying from California to Washington, D.C., to
attend the proceedings.
Altmann«s lawyer and longtime family friend, E. Randol Schoenberg, said
Altmann will turn 88 on Feb. 17, one week before the trial date.
Schoenberg said Altmann will probably hold off on her birthday celebration
until after the Supreme Court decides whether American court«s have the
jurisdiction to return her the $100-million paintings.
Klimt-Bilder: Zuständigkeitsstreit vor US-Höchstgericht
Das US-Höchstgericht befasst sich am Mittwoch in einer Anhörung
Rechtsstreit um sechs wertvolle Klimt-Bilder, in dem die Zuständigkeit der
US-Gerichte strittig ist. Im Verfahren fordert Klägerin Maria Altmann, eine
Nichte von Adele Bloch-Bauer, die Herausgabe der Bilder von der Republik
Das Verfahren ist damit im Streit über die Zuständigkeit in
US-Instanz angelangt. Altmann hatte im August 2000 vor einem Gericht in Los
Angeles ihre Klage gegen die Republik Österreich eingebracht. Ihr Anwalt
Randol Schoenberg argumentiert, dass die Zuständigkeit der US-Gerichte für
den Fall gegeben ist, die beklagte Republik Österreich bestreitet das.
Keine inhaltliche Prüfung
Bei der mündlichen Anhörung haben die neun Richter rund eine
Gelegenheit, an die Anwälte beider Parteien Fragen zu stellen. Dabei wird es
primär um die Rechtsgrundlage für die Zuständigkeit der US-Gerichtsbarkeit
gehen, nicht um eine inhaltliche Prüfung der Klage. Die Entscheidung des
Höchstgerichts wird vermutlich erst in zwei bis drei Monaten veröffentlicht
In dem Prozess geht es um Rückgabeansprüche von sechs Bildern
Klimt. In ihrem Testament bat die Besitzerin Adele Bloch-Bauer ihren Mann,
die Bilder nach seinem Tod der Republik Österreich bzw. der Österreichischen
Galerie zu schenken.
Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer wurde aber in der NS-Zeit enteignet, die Bilder
von den Nazis an das Museum übergeben bzw. verkauft. Bloch-Bauer hatte in
seinem Testament seinen Neffen und seine zwei Nichten als Alleinerben