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Nazi Payback?
California Woman Seeks to Sue Austria in U.S. Court Over Nazi Theft of
Family Art

By Jake Tapper and Cindy Smith

Feb. 28 Maria Altmann, an 88-year-old Los Angeles woman who escaped the
Holocaust, came to Washington, D.C., where she and her family visited the
U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum and took in the sights.

Then on Wednesday, she went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she tried to
secure the right to sue the government of Austria for millions of dollars of
artwork Nazis plundered from her family.

Adding to the drama of the case, Austria v. Altmann, the U.S. government
led by the Bush administration's attorney, Solicitor General Ted Olson
sided against her.

It is undisputed that six paintings by Austrian master Gustav Klimt once
belonged to Altmann's family, which fled Austria after the Nazis invaded in
1938. Two of the paintings, in fact, are of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer,
commissioned by Maria Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer; a reproduction
of one hangs in Maria's Los Angeles home.

"She died when I was very young," Maria Altmann recalled in an interview
with ABCNEWS. "I was only 9 years old when she died. When my uncle
commissioned Klimt to paint it, it was totally affordable."

But Altmann says the paintings are now valued at $150 million, which to say
the least complicates her efforts to reclaim them though the paintings'
worth seems the least of the hurdles in Maria Altmann's path.

A Bad Precedent?

In 2000, Altmann sued Austria in U.S. District Court to try to recover the
paintings, which hang in Austria's government-run National Gallery.

But the U.S. government says a 1976 law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities
Act, precludes lawsuits against foreign countries though some courts have
disputed whether the law applies to events that transpired before the law
was enacted, and even before the 1952 State Department guideline upon which
the law is based.

On its Web site, the State Department tries to explain the law, stating the
"immunity of a State from the jurisdiction of the courts of another State is
an undisputed principle of customary international law."

Calling the U.S. government's position in this case "very odd," Altmann's
attorney, Randy Schoenberg, told ABCNEWS, "In this case they have admitted
there are no foreign policy problems," but, "they are worried about cases in
Japan, Mexico, and Poland. And it's out of concern for those cases that they
have given their position here in this case."

The Solicitor General's office declined to speak to ABCNEWS about the
matter. But in oral arguments Wednesday, Thomas Hungar arguing on behalf
of the government said it would be harmful and unprecedented to allow U.S.
courts to resolve property lawsuits against foreign countries.

Justice Stephen Breyer observed that the government may have a valid
argument that allowing Altmann's lawsuit against Austria to continue would
set a precedent that could create "a pretty big nightmare" in courts. But he
failed to see how it would affect foreign affairs, and in a pointed exchange
with Hungar, Justice Breyer asked why the government couldn't file
"statements of interest" in specific suits that were problematic to the U.S.
government instead of opposing all lawsuits.

Hungar replied that the government was better suited than courts to settle
such disputes, and ominously pointed out that the allowing Altmann's case,
"could open this country to claims in foreign courts."

Nazi Plundering, Austrian Deceptions

The way events transpired during World War II, it doesn't necessarily even
seem that odd that Hermann Goering, Adolph Hitler's top deputy, would end up
with some of Altmann's jewelry. Then 22, Altmann handed over her diamond
necklace and earrings to Nazis seeking to "inventory" her valuables in
special taxes applied only to Jews.

The paintings are a more complicated matter. Nazis took them from Ferdinand
Bloch-Bauer as part of a tax applied to Jewish owners of art. After the war,
however, Austria secured the works from Maria Altmann's brother by claiming
falsely, Altmann claims they had been willed to the museum by Adele
Bloch-Bauer, and exacting them as compensation from her brother for other
recovered paintings, which Altmann claims amounted to little more than
extortion.

Adele died of meningitis in 1925 at age 43.

"I have often thought about" what she would have made of all this, Altmann
says. "Adele loved Vienna, she surrounded herself with the greatest
personalities in art and music in politics."

But after the Nazis invaded in 1938 "a lot of her friends were killed and
committed suicide. Her mind about Vienna would have totally changed."

"I just would like to see that justice is done," she told ABCNEWS. "To keep
on dragging and dragging it has been too long."

For someone whose family has been through so much and whose legal battle
with the Austrian Museum has subjected her to some rather scathing stories
in the Austrian press she sounds remarkably free of bitterness.

"I don't blame them for what happened in '38; I certainly don't," she says.
"I just wish they would see now what's right and what's wrong and what was
really theirs and what wasn't."

In its argument before the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Austrian
government have focused more on the principle of the law than the behavior
of the National Gallery.

"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," wrote Scott P. Cooper, representing the Austrian
government, in a Supreme Court brief.

But Altmann has many arguments to make concerning the paintings. It will be
up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether she will get her day in
court.