Posted on Wed, Feb. 25, 2004
Supreme Court takes up issue of art looted by Nazis
By STEPHEN HENDERSON
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - More than half a century after the Nazis plundered Jewish
holdings and scattered them across Europe, the Supreme Court on Wednesday
considered whether federal courts in the United States can help descendants
of World War II victims get their belongings back.
Maria Altmann wants to sue the government of Austria to recover $150
in paintings she says the Nazis stole from her relatives.
The Austrian government, backed by the Bush administration, says that
violate its sovereign immunity and threaten diplomatic relations between the
United States and many other countries.
The case is significant not only for its foreign policy implications
other such cases are pending at the high court - but also for its emotional
touchstones. Altmann has said that 65 years later, it remains a "simple
matter of justice" for Austria to return her family's paintings, and she has
emerged as a salient reminder of Nazi-era atrocities.
To decide the case, the justices will have to reconcile two longtime
One says that other nations are generally exempt from being sued in
courts for actions they take within their borders. The other, which has
developed since the end of World War II and was made into law by Congress in
1976, says there are exceptions to that immunity. Foreign nations, for
example, don't enjoy the same protection for acts related to commerce and
In Altmann's case, the Austrian government claims that the 1976 law
have to be applied retroactively to permit her suit.
Altmann says her family commissioned several paintings by a famous Austrian
painter. The paintings came into Nazi hands during the war and were given to
an Austrian gallery. A will left by one of Altmann's relatives left the
paintings to the Austrian government, but Altmann says it's not valid. Her
uncle had a will that contradicted the other and left her the paintings.
Lawyers for the Austrian government and the Bush administration told
court Wednesday that it would be unfair to change the rules about immunity
now because Austria and other countries have long expected that these kinds
of disputes would be settled diplomatically.
"We think it's basic fairness," that should prevent the suit, said Richard
Cooper, a lawyer representing the Austrian government. Making the 1976 law
retroactive would "change the legal consequences" for actions taken decades
ago, Cooper said.
Thomas Hungar, a Bush administration lawyer, said that although no
diplomatic efforts were threatened specifically by Altmann's suit, a ruling
in her favor could allow suits to go ahead against countries that have
touchy diplomatic exchanges with the United States.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked Hungar why the government couldn't object
court to those suits that threatened diplomatic efforts, instead of
asserting that suits against foreign countries shouldn't be allowed.
In a tense exchange with Hungar, Breyer said the government could file
"statements of interest" in those suits that were problematic.
But Hungar said the government should handle disputes between Americans
foreign nations - particularly Nazi-era disputes - and that the courts
aren't needed. Hungar also told the justices that a ruling favorable to
Altmann would open the United States to reciprocity by other nations. "It
could open this country to claims in foreign courts," Hungar said.
Altmann's lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, said those weren't reasons to
his client's claim. Not only does her case avoid diplomatic issues, he said,
it also dodges issues that complicate other cases.
"Many of these cases raise statute of limitations problems or conflict
`act of state' doctrine or interfere with treaties," Schoenberg said. "This
case doesn't." He said that's why the high court shouldn't deny federal
courts jurisdiction over all cases of this type. The high court, he said,
should let the courts sort out the good ones from the bad.
"These issues should be litigated," Schoenberg said.
A ruling is expected by July.
Court mulls suit vs. Austria on alleged Nazi art
By Steve Lash, Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Thursday, February 26, 2004
WASHINGTON -- A Jewish woman challenged the U.S. and Austrian governments
Wednesday at the Supreme Court in an effort to retrieve from Austria
paintings she says the Nazis stole from her family during the Holocaust.
Maria Altmann's attorney argued that a 1976 federal law allows her to
Austria in a U.S. court in an attempt to recover the six paintings. Austria
countered that, as a foreign nation, it is immune from being sued in U.S.
Austria maintains that the artwork, by renowned Austrian artist Gustav
Klimt, was not ill-gotten but bequeathed to the Austrian Gallery by
Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925.
Although the U.S. government is not taking a position on Altmann's claim,
says allowing a private citizen's lawsuit to proceed against a sovereign
nation could interfere with the president's ability to conduct foreign
The 1976 law gave limited allowance for citizens to sue foreign governments.
At issue in Altmann's case is whether it applies retroactively to events
that occurred during the World War II era. Altmann was successful in a lower
Lawyers for the Bush administration said it would be unfair to change
rules about immunity now, given past expectations that diplomats would
handle these sorts of cases.
The Supreme Court is expected to render its decision by July.
Pressing Austria's appeal, attorney Scott Cooper argued that the act
citizens to sue foreign governments only for actions taken after its
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Austria's offense was not
alleged receipt of stolen paintings but its continuing possession of them.
Justices Hear Dispute Over Paintings Seized by Nazis (Update1)
Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Lawyers representing the U.S. and Austria told
Supreme Court that permitting a California woman to sue to recover art
confiscated by the Nazis during World War II might invite a flood of
litigation about property seized in wars.
Austria is asking the justices to block Maria V. Altmann, 87, from suing
U.S. courts to recover six paintings by Austrian master Gustav Klimt worth
an estimated $150 million. They were taken from her family by the Nazis and
are now in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna.
Her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, died in 1945, and the question in
is whether he left the paintings to Altmann and other relatives, or his wife
Adele left them to Austria when she died in 1925. Austria said the suit is
invalid because U.S. courts don't have jurisdiction over such disputes that
arose before 1976, when the U.S. passed a law spelling out the legal
immunity of foreign nations.
U.S. courts aren't the place to debate ``the sovereign conduct of foreign
states operating within their own borders,'' Scott P. Cooper, a lawyer
representing Austria, told the justices at a hearing in Washington today.
Austria is appealing rulings by federal courts in California that permitted
Altmann, a U.S. citizen, to sue. The lower courts said the 1976 law can be
applied retroactively in this case. Altmann's attorneys say she was denied a
chance to sue in Austria because she couldn't afford the $2 million in court
The law granted foreign countries immunity from suit in some cases,
excluding instances of expropriated property. Altmann cited that exception
in filing her case.
The Bush administration is supporting Austria. Deputy Solicitor General
Thomas G. Hungar told the justices that the U.S. has long maintained that
its courts don't have authority over expropriation claims made before 1976.
Such cases, he said, should be resolved through diplomatic channels
established procedures for foreign claims.
Hungar said Altmann's case would ``open the United States to reciprocal
claims by foreign courts.''
Justice Stephen Breyer asked E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann's lawyer,
U.S. courts risk becoming ``places to litigate who owns property all over
Schoenberg said the U.S. government could short-circuit any case by
asserting in court that a given claim interferes with treaties or foreign
policy. The U.S. made no such assertion in the Altmann case, Schoenberg
The Austrian Gallery, housed in two former palaces in Vienna, has the
world's largest collection of Klimt paintings. Austria says it acquired the
artworks as a gift from Altmann's brother in 1948. The six seized paintings
include a portrait of Adele Bloch- Bauer, one of Klimt's most famous works
which is on the cover of the Austrian Gallery's guidebook.
Before 1952, the U.S. gave foreign nations full immunity from lawsuits
U.S. courts, Austria's attorneys say. A 1952 State Department policy began
allowing suits against foreign nations over property taken in violation of
international law, and that policy was further spelled out in the 1976 act.
The case is Austria v. Altmann, 03-13.
To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in
To contact the editor of this story:
Glenn Hall at email@example.com.
Supreme Court Weighs in on Art Dispute
19 minutes ago
By GINA HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - With an 88-year-old victim of the Nazis looking on, the
Court debated Wednesday whether to open up U.S. courts to World War II-era
fights over looted art, stolen property and war crimes.
Justices confronted the narrow legal question of whether foreign governments
are protected from lawsuits in America for such long-ago wrongs.
For Maria Altmann, Wednesday's oral argument session at the Supreme
was much more personal.
The court will decide by summer if she can sue the Austrian government
recover six paintings, worth an estimated $150 million, in federal court in
Nazis had looted the possessions of Altmann's wealthy Jewish family,
including prized Gustav Klimt (news - web sites) paintings that now hang in
the Austrian Gallery. She and her husband escaped to America after she had
been detained and her husband imprisoned in labor camp.
"I never thought when I was born and raised in Vienna that I would be
sitting in the United States Supreme Court," Altmann, the daughter of a
lawyer, said after the argument. "To have justice ... this is my one
opportunity. Hopefully while I'm still alive."
If the Los Angeles woman wins at the Supreme Court, it will embolden
of wartime atrocities to pursue lawsuits. Women who claim they were used as
sex slaves during World War II have sued Japan, and Holocaust survivors and
heirs have brought a case against the French national railroad for
transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps.
Those lawsuits are on hold pending the court's ruling in Altmann's case.
"It's all of the World War II liability at stake, very substantial.
United States courts take that on?" said Charles Palmer, a law professor at
Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
Bush administration lawyer Thomas Hungar told justices that it would
unprecedented to have U.S. judges resolving lawsuits against foreign
countries over expropriated property, and argued it would harm America's
relations with those countries.
Justice Stephen Breyer (news - web sites), one of two Jewish members
court, said the government had a valid concern of creating "a pretty big
nightmare" in courts. But, he said, "I don't see why it affects foreign
Congress passed a law in 1976 spelling out when other countries can
in the United States. The law was based on a 1952 State Department policy.
The question for the court is if the law is retroactive, dating back before
Scott P. Cooper of Los Angeles, one of Austria's lawyers, said that
has long believed that it was shielded from lawsuits in the United States
over expropriated art and other things.
"I don't know that we protect expectations of the sort you're talking
about," Justice Antonin Scalia (news - web sites) told him.
Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, was a wealthy sugar magnate
the Nazis took over his castle and business. Representatives of the Austrian
Gallery helped divide the property and got some of his paintings.
Austria argues that it rightfully owns the Klimt works. Bloch-Bauer's
specified in a will before she died in 1925 that she wanted the art,
including paintings of her, to go to the government.
That was 20 years before Bloch-Bauer died poverty-stricken in Switzerland.
His will left Altmann and her two siblings his possessions, which he had
unsuccessfully tried to recover. Only Altmann is still alive and she
contends that Austria has cheated the family out of the paintings.
The case is Austria v. Altmann, 03-13.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/
History of the case: http://www.adele.at
Supreme Court Ponders Nazi Theft
WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2004
A World War II-era international fight over famous Austrian art has
captured the attention of the Supreme Court.
More than 65 years after the Nazis pillaged the belongings of a
Jewish sugar magnate in Vienna, the man's niece is asking the court
to help her recover $150 million worth of paintings they stole.
Maria Altmann of Los Angeles wants the justices to open up U.S.
courts to old disputes with other governments. Her lawyer was arguing
at the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
If she should win, she could resume her federal court lawsuit to
recover six Gustav Klimt paintings, including two impressionistic
portraits of her aunt. They are now part of the Austrian Gallery's
popular Klimt collection.
A victory for the 88-year-old woman, critics warn, could lead to
lawsuits in American courts against galleries worldwide and would
revive old allegations of government misconduct.
Two other cases involving similar issues already are pending at the
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
lawsuit by Holocaust survivors and heirs against the French national
railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi
"Every major museum in the world has property that arguably has been
expropriated by somebody," said Scott P. Cooper of Los Angeles, one
of Austria's lawyers.
He said Altmann's plight is compelling: She escaped the Nazis and
eventually became a U.S. citizen. "It has created sympathy in the
courts below, but I don't believe the Supreme Court is going to be
distracted by the individual facts in this case," he said.
Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, died in 1925 after asking that the
art be donated to the government gallery. Her uncle died in exile in
Switzerland at the end of World War II and left his possessions to
Altmann and two of her siblings. Only Altmann is still alive.
Austria argues that it rightfully owns the paintings. It says a
member of Altmann's family gave the Klimt paintings to the museum, as
her aunt had requested in her will. Altmann's lawyers contend the
will was invalid.
The Bush administration supports Austria. Solicitor General Theodore
Olson told justices in a filing that "the United States has strongly
condemned the Nazi atrocities, and it has sought to rectify Nazi
wrongs through diplomatic and other means."
The government has not, however, authorized U.S. courts to resolve
war-related claims, he said.
Legal fight to reclaim art stolen by Nazis
By David Rennie in Washington
An elderly Jewish woman yesterday asked the United States Supreme Court
help her recover six Klimt paintings worth £80 million, stolen by the Nazis
from her family during World War Two and now regarded as one of the jewels
in Austria's national art collection.
Maria Altmann, 88, turned to America's highest court after officials
Vienna argued that a 1952 American law shields certain countries, among them
Austria, from lawsuits brought by individual US citizens.
The Austrian government has taken a twin-track approach to keeping the
paintings, which have been seen by millions of visitors to the Austrian
Gallery in Vienna. Two are portraits of the original owner of the works,
Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of a Jewish sugar magnate.
Austria claims the paintings were bequeathed to the state by Adele and
husband, Ferdinand. It also argues that Mrs Altmann, who lives in Los
Angeles, has left it too late to sue.
Documents show that Adele Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925, merely requested
that her husband - who owned the paintings - give them to the state on his
death. In 1936, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer donated one of the works, a landscape.
The other five were in his home when he fled the country in 1938, and were
looted along with the rest of his art collection.
Before Mr Bloch-Bauer died in Switzerland in 1945, he wrote a new will,
leaving his estate to his nephews and nieces.
Klimt-Bilder: US-Höchstgericht berät über Zuständigkeit
Vor dem US-Höchstgericht in Washington hat gestern eine
Anhörung in dem
Rechtsstreit um die Rückgabe von sechs wertvollen Klimt-Bildern an die
Nichte von Adele und Friedrich Blochbauer, Maria Altmann, stattgefunden.
Der Vertreter der Republik Österreich, Anwalt Scott Cooper, und
Vertreter der Klägerin, Anwalt Randol Schoenberg, zeigten sich beide
anschließend vor Journalisten optimistisch, dass jeweils ihre Seite im
Streit über Zuständigkeit
In dem Verfahren wird bisher nur um die Zuständigkeit gerungen.
bestreitet die Zuständigkeit der US-Gerichtsbarkeit und wird dabei von der
US-Regierung unterstützt, die eine entsprechende Stellungnahme abgegeben
Rund eine Stunde lang debattierten die neun Höchstrichter mit den
sowie dem Vertreter der US-Regierung, Thomas Hungar. Dabei ging es um
völkerrechtliche Fragen der Staatensouveränität, der Immunität und der
Rückwirkung des Foreign Souvereign Immunities Act (FSIA) von 1976.
Urteil in ein bis zwei Monaten
Die 88-jährige Blochbauer-Nichte Maria Altmann wurde von ihren
und zwei Enkelkindern begleitet. "Ich hoffe natürlich das Beste", sagte sie
nach der Anhörung.
"Ich habe kolossale Hochachtung vor dem amerikanischen Höchstgericht",
Frau Altmann hinzu. Die Richter werden nun über ein Urteil beraten, dass
frühestens in ein bis zwei Monaten erwartet wird.
Leopold-Anwälte und Diplomaten
Auch die Anwälte, die Kunstsammler Rudolf Leopold im Rechtsstreit
"Bildnis Wally" von Egon Schiele vertreten, sollen beim Gerichtstermin
anwesend gewesen sein. Weiters nahmen auch die österreichische Botschafterin
in den USA, Eva Nowotny, sowie Botschafter Hans Winkler, Leiter des
Völkerrechtsbüros im Außenministerium, als Zuhörer teil.
25. Februar 2004
19:36 MEZ Klimt-Streit und Zuständigkeitsdebatte
Am Mittwoch war Anhörung vor dem US-Höchstgericht, eine Entscheidung wird
erst in einigen Monaten erwartet
Detail aus: "Adele Bloch-Bauer II, stehend", Gustav Klimt
Washington - Das US-Höchstgericht befasst sich am
Mittwoch, den 25.
Februar, in einer Anhörung mit dem 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 Österreich. Die 88-jährige
Altmann war vor den Nazis aus Österreich geflüchtet und lebt heute in Los
Angeles, sie will bei der Verhandlung in Washington anwesend sein. Ihr
Anwalt Randol Schoenberg argumentiert, dass die Zuständigkeit der
US-Gerichte für den Fall gegeben ist, die beklagte Republik Österreich
Revision eines Zuständigkeitsurteils im Sinne der Klägerin
Das Verfahren ist damit im Streit um die Zuständigkeit in der höchsten
US-Instanz angelangt. Maria Altmann hatte im August 2000 vor einem Gericht
in Los Angeles ihre Klage gegen die Republik Österreich eingebracht. Diese
beruft sich aber auf die Staatenimmunität und bestreitet daher eine
Zuständigkeit der US-Gerichte. Sie hat gegen die Entscheidung eines
kalifornischen Berufungsgerichts zu Gunsten der Klägerin Altmann Revision
eingelegt, die vom US-Höchstgericht angenommen wurde.
Keine inhaltliche Prüfung der Klage
Bei der mündlichen Anhörung am Mittwoch (11 Uhr Ortszeit -
17 Uhr MEZ) haben
die neun Richter rund eine Stunde lang Gelegenheit, an den Anwalt der
beklagten Republik Österreich, Scott Cooper, an den Anwalt der Klägerin
Altmann, Randol Schoenberg, sowie an den Vertreter der US-Regierung Fragen
zu stellen. Dabei wird vermutlich primär die Rechtsgrundlage für die von der
Klägerin behauptete Zuständigkeit der US-Gerichtsbarkeit erörtert. Eine
inhaltliche Prüfung der Klage findet aber keinesfalls statt. Präsident des
US-Höchstgerichts ist der konservative Richter William Rehnquist.
Debatte der Höchstrichter unter Ausschluss der Öffentlichkeit am Freitag
Am Freitag werden die neun Höchstrichter dann in einer nichtöffentlichen
Sitzung den Fall noch einmal diskutieren und über ein Urteil abstimmen.
Anschließend wird ein Richter mit der schriftlichen Ausfertigung des Urteils
beauftragt. Die Entscheidung des Höchstgerichts, ob in dem Fall US-Gerichte
zuständig sind oder nicht, wird aber vermutlich erst in zwei bis drei
Monaten veröffentlicht werden.
In dem Prozess geht es um Rückgabeansprüche betreffend der
Bloch-Bauer I", "Adele Bloch-Bauer II", "Apfelbaum I", "Buchenwald
(Birkenwald)" und "Häuser in Unterach am Attersee" sowie "Amalie
Zuckerkandl" von Gustav Klimt. Die ersten fünf davon sind im Testament von
Adele Bloch-Bauer erwähnt, in dem sie ihren Mann Ferdinand bat, nach seinem
Tod die Bilder der Republik Österreich bzw. der Österreichischen Galerie zu
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 dem Zuständigkeitsstreit
folgende Gerichtsverfahren soll klären, wer rechtmäßiger Eigentümer der
Bilder ist: die Republik Österreich oder Bloch-Bauer-Nichte und -Erbin