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New York Sun
July 8, 2004


Justice Delayed and Found

Ronald S. Lauder on the significance of Maria Altmann’s battle against Austria and the State Dept.

Ronald S. Lauder
Mr. Lauder is the chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and the president of the Jewish National Fund.
Maria Altmann is an 88-year-old Californian who has been carrying on a lonely fight against the government of Austria for almost 30 years. More recently, she has also had to fight the American State Department as well. Last month, the Supreme Court came to her rescue.
Mrs. Altmann, originally from Austria,is the only surviving relative of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. The Bloch-Bauers were a wealthy family. Ferdinand owned a large sugar business in Vienna before the war and he was a great art collector as well. But he and his family were also Jewish at a time when the Austrians perpetrated and collaborated in the robbing and murder of Austrian Jews.
Following the Anschluss in 1938, the art owned by Ferdinand was taken, along with the entire contents of the Bloch-Bauer house. The process of this theft was accomplished through a law passed by the Nazis called aryanization, which gave the legal right of non-Jewish Austrians and Germans to take the property of Jews.
Among the paintings owned by Ferdinand were six works by Gustav Klimt, including perhaps his most famous, the 1907 "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I." When Mrs. Bloch-Bauer died prematurely in 1925, she left a will asking that her husband, who owned the art, leave the paintings to the state museum following his death. Since she didn’t own them, that request wasn’t valid – it was just that, a request.When Ferdinand died in poverty in Switzerland in 1945, he was not in possession of the art – it was held by the Austrians – and, given everything that transpired, he was hardly of a mind to leave it to them.
Since 1938, when Austrian Nazis stole these works,Austria has held the paintings in its state museum, the Belvedere.The government claims them as its national treasures. Their estimated value today is well over $100 million.
As the only surviving relative, Mrs. Altmann has taken her case against Austria through the American court system, beginning in 1976, when she was 60 years old.She had to go through American courts because Austria’s legal system makes it virtually impossible for her to pursue justice in that country. Austria, as do many European countries, demands a percentage of the possible reward up front for potential court costs, which, in Mrs.Altmann’s case, would have amounted to several million dollars. There was also an earlier Austrian tribunal set up that decided against her on a patently fallacious legal argument based on Adele’s 1925 request.
Since Mrs. Altman could not find justice in Austria, she began her legal battle to retrieve the family art in Los Angeles. Time and again, she won the right to sue the Austrians in American federal courts. As Mrs. Altmann’s case proceeded, something very strange occurred. The State Department, in what I believe was a misguided move, came down on the side of the Austrians and against one of its own citizens – an octogenarian, at that.
When I was the American Ambassador to Austria in 1986 and 1987,I was very proud of the fact that the State Department sided with the victims of Nazi theft and atrocities in every single case.That made it so much more shocking when
the State Department sided with the Austrians in this case and tried to prevent a Holocaust victim from receiving what was rightfully hers.
Now, in a decision of monumental importance, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling by a federal appellate court in California allowing Mrs.Altmann to sue Austria in American courts to recover the paintings taken from her uncle more than 60 years ago.In a 6-to-3 vote,the justices now make it possible for American citizens to sue foreign governments in American courts for war crimes in World War II.
This is a triumph of justice for victims who have faced nothing but obstacles in their attempts to right these decades-old wrongs.It may have taken Mrs. Altmann 30 years to come to this point,and it is still far from over – the paintings remain on the walls of a museum over 10,000 miles from her home.But it’s a new beginning after decades of injustice.
Since the end of World War II, Austria has placed itself on the right side of many human rights issues.It opened its borders to immigrants fleeing the tyranny of Soviet oppression and became a way station for thousands of struggling human beings seeking freedom in the West.
Wouldn’t this be the right time for Austria to do the right thing as many Austrians have urged them to do? Wouldn’t this be the right time for our own State Department to realize that it made a mistake and now help Mrs.Altmann and other American citizens like her?
In her own clear voice, Mrs.Altmann, who remembers these paintings hanging in her uncle’s bedroom as a memorial after his wife died so young, told a radio interviewer that she was unbelievably grateful for the Supreme Court’s decision. "It’s strictly a question of justice," she said. "These paintings are not theirs. These paintings belong to us."