Home News


08-22-04 Mandarin Legal Issues Origination

Title: Nazi Art Case; Legal ABC: Wills
Interviewees: 1)Maria Altman, Plaintiff in the Nazi Art Case; 2)E. Randol Schoenburg, Counsel for Maria Altman; 3)Scott P. Cooper, American Counsel for Austria; 4)Gottfried A. Toman, Director, Austrian Office of State Attorneys; 5)Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, Honorary Chairman of the Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property; Former Ambassador to the European Union, Attorney, Covington And Burling, LLP; 6)Sophie Lillie, Art Historian in Austria
Sources: 1)"Justices Allow Suit in Nazi Cast, "International Herald Tribune, 6/8/04; 2)"Austria's Lawyer Urges Court to Throw Out Suit over Plundered Art," Metropolitan News, 3/8/02; 3)"Court to Hear Stolen Nazi Art Case," CBS News, 9/30/03; 4)"Austria's Stain On Klimt Beauty" Christian Science Monitor; 5)"Sleuth in the Picture" Nationwide News Pty Limited,5/14/04; 6)"Trial of Nazi Plunder Leads to High Court Caseó
Has Wide Implications in Art World, Foreign Policy, " USA Today; 7)"For Lawyer, This Case is Personal," Washington Post, 3/1/04; 8)"Going For Gold," Legal Focus and News

Todayís Legal Issues deals with the case of Maria Altman, who is seeking to reclaim paintings that were confiscated by the Nazis from her family, at that time living in Vienna, during the Second World War.  The paintings, including six works by the famous Viennese artist Gustav Klimt valued at over one hundred million US dollars, ended up in the collection of the Austrian Gallery at the conclusion of the war.  Mrs. Altman claims, however, that the gallery used illegal and coercive tactics to procure the paintings by Klimt.  The gallery, on the other hand, claims that it has legal rights to the works based on the last will and testament of Maria Altmanís aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer, whose portrait by Klimt was among the disputed paintings.  In her will, Maria Altmanís aunt expressed the wish that the paintings be given to the Austrian Gallery.

Nevertheless, the paintings were the property of Maria Altmanís uncle, Ferdinand Bloch Bauer, and her uncleís will did not leave the paintings to the Austrian Gallery, but left his property to his surviving nieces and nephews. After Ferdinand died, one of Maria Altmanís elder brothers retained a lawyer and attempted to negotiate with the Austrian government to regain the property that had been confiscated by the Nazis during the war.  At this point, surviving documents show the gallery thought its legal claim to the paintings was weak.  The gallery bargained with the familyís lawyer to allow some of the familyís art collection to be returned in exchange for retaining ownership of the Klimt paintings.  The family felt it had no choice but to accept the offer.

In 1998, a Viennese journalist working in the Austrian Galleryís archives uncovered a series of letters that verified this exchange.  It was the discovery of these letters that led the now 88-year-old Altman to take legal action to force the gallery to return the Klimt paintings to her.  She first tried to sue in Austria courts, but the legal fees would have left her penniless.  She then tried her case in US courts, and the case made its way to the US Supreme Court.

The case is not just a question of the conflicting wills of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch Bauer, but also concerns the legal relationship between the US and other foreign sovereigns.  Prior to 1952, foreign sovereigns were immune from lawsuits in US courts, but in 1976, the US Congress passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which upheld the idea the foreign governments cannot be sued in US courts, but added some important exceptions, including cases involving the illegal seizure of property, termed the "expropriation exception."  Altman sees her case as falling under this exception.  Austria, on the other hand, has argued that because the dispute over the paintings occurred before 1952, that its government should be immune from any lawsuit in US courts.

Both the Federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Altman. The Austrian government then appealed to the US Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ruled that the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act could be applied retroactively to Altmanís case, thus paving the way for Altman to sue the Austrian Government in US Courts.  Now, the case will progress through the US legal system to be decided on its merits.

Legal ABC: Wills

A will is a legal document written to protect the remaining estate of a deceased individual and ensures the estate is distributed among family and friends according to the individualís wishes.  If an individual has children, a will explains the deceasedís desires as to who should assume legal guardianship.  While the laws governing wills are different for each state, there are some common points: each will must have an executor and must specify the inheritors of the estate.  There are generally three types of wills: a will written by the deceased and signed by a witness; a will written by the deceased with no witness; and an oral will.  To be legal, a will must be written by an adult, sincerely motivated, not written under coercion, and must invalidate all previously written wills.  If there is no will, states follow set guidelines to distribute a personís estate.