Home News

The Oregonian

Outrageous behavior needs redress

Saturday, June 12, 2004


Some issues command attention. Like a python wrapped around your neck, they call for immediate action. For example:

W hen Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish sugar merchant, fled Vienna in 1938, the Nazis seized his extensive art collection. He died impoverished in Switzerland in 1945. His niece and surviving heir, a U.S. citizen, wants the Austrian Gallery, a national museum, to return the collection of six Gustav Klimt paintings to her.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Maria V. Altmann, Bloch-Bauer's 88-year-old niece, to sue the government of Austria for return of the art collection, valued now at more than $100 million. The legal question at issue was whether a U.S. statute, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, allows a lawsuit in U.S. courts against Austria, a sovereign nation, based on events that took place before 1952, or whether the matter should be resolved only by Austrian courts.

There really is no moral question.

The paintings belonged to Bloch-Bauer. They were seized by the Nazis. Altmann is the sole surviving heir. In the 1955 treaty re-establishing it as a sovereign nation, Austria agreed to return art and other plundered property to its rightful owners.

Postwar Austrian governments tried to evade that responsibility. As recently as 2000 the U.S. Presidential Commission examining looted art and assets reported that Austria's "restrictive restitution process impeded the return of assets to victims."

Austria's claim that the paintings are its legitimate property because Bloch-Bauer intended to bequeath the six disputed paintings to the state museum is thin gruel. Bloch-Bauer's wife, Adele, who predeceased him, had expressed a wish that the paintings eventually be given to the state. She died in 1925, long before Nazis assumed power in Austria and before Austria fought with the Axis powers in World War II.

It defies rational thought that the nonbinding wish -- not a directive -- would be carried out after the Austrian government conspired in the Nazi atrocities. Additionally, her uncle specified that his possessions should be given to Altmann and two other family members. Altmann, a California resident, is the only one of the three still living. Subsequently, Austria tried to extort the paintings by saying that none of them would be allowed to be exported if the heirs disputed the Austrian Gallery's ownership of the Klimt paintings.

Austria continues to try to evade the principle of restitution. It is churlishly hiding behind legalisms. Its national position is morally bankrupt.

Reach Robert Landauer at 503-221-8157 or robertlandauer@news.oregonian.com.