By Laura Wides
3:58 p.m. May 18, 2005
LOS ANGELES A woman seeking the return of nearly $200 million worth of paintings stolen from her family after the Nazis invaded Austria has agreed to arbitration with the Austrian government, her lawyer said Wednesday.
Maria Altmann, an 89-year-old widow from Los Angeles, has fought since 1998 to reclaim six Gustav Klimt paintings from the Austrian government, including a colorful, gold-infused portrait of her aunt.
Advertisement"I am feeling very good about the whole thing because it was dragging on and dragging on," Altmann said. "We are finally seeing an end, and I hope a happy end. I am very pleased that things can be solved in a friendly and peaceful way."
The two sides began mediation in March following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year that Altmann could sue the Austrian government.
Her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said mediation could begin as early as next month and a decision was expected in November.
Martin Weiss, Counsel General for Austria, said his government was pleased with the agreement and glad to see the legal process return to Austria's jurisdiction.
"There are a lot of happy faces around the table today. It's an agreement all sides can view as fair."
The case stems from a 1998 law passed in Austria that required federal museums to review their holdings to see if they included works looted by the Nazis and to find out whether the works were obtained by the museums without remuneration.
The Nazis seized the paintings from Altmann's wealthy Jewish family, including works that now hang in the Austrian Gallery, soon after they came to power in Austria in 1938.
Austria contends rightful ownership of the paintings, because Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, asked that the art be donated to the government gallery before her death in 1925.
But Altmann's uncle, who died in exile in Switzerland in 1945, specified that his possessions should go to Altmann and two other family members. Altmann is the only one of the three still living.
Schoenberg says that the family relinquished rights to the paintings in 1948 only in exchange for Austria's release of other art works that belonged to them.
He said he first approached Austria about arbitration in 1999 but was rebuffed. He attributed the change of heart to the Supreme Court's decision, issued over the objections of the Bush administration which said it would hurt diplomatic relations.
Scott Cooper, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Austrian government, said that offer "was two litigations and a long time ago." He said the Austrian government had always sought to resolve the dispute in Austria.
The case will be decided by three arbiters, one picked by each side, and the third chosen by the other two. The decision will be binding
Among the paintings, the gold-encrusted "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" is one of Klimt's most famous pieces. It is similar in style to his world-renowned painting, "The Kiss."
"It's literally priceless," said Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City, which introduced Klimt to the United States in 1959.
Asked about Austria's feelings on the potential loss of works by one of its most world-renowned artist, Weiss replied, "Whatever the situation is, the situation is. The most important thing is that we have a clear-cut decision that will come speedily and everyone will embrace."
Legal history of the case: www.adele.at
Posted on Wed, May. 18, 2005
Austrian panel, not U.S. courts, will decide who owns looted art
BY HOWARD REICH
CHICAGO - (KRT) - A dispute over Nazi-looted art that precipitated a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last year will be settled in binding arbitration in Austria.
Though the Supreme Court ruled in June that Holocaust survivor Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann could sue the Austrian government in U.S. courts for stolen art valued at $150 million, Altmann has agreed with the Austrian government and other related parties to accept the decision of an Austrian arbitration panel.
The agreement ends all litigation over the paintings in the United States and precludes appeals. The Austrian panel is expected to rule by Nov. 1.
At issue is the ownership of six paintings by Gustav Klimt, including one of the most famous oil portraits of the 20th century, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" (1907), which depicts Altmann's aunt.
Altmann made legal history with her Supreme Court case, which established that a foreign government could be sued in the United States over looted art. But Altmann's suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles will be dismissed as a result of the new agreement, announced Wednesday.
"This is something that I actually had asked for and proposed six years ago, in 1999, when they (the Austrian government) first made the decision not to return the paintings," said Altmann's Los Angeles attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg. "I'm happy they have finally come around."
Though an Austrian representative also enthusiastically embraced the arbitration agreement, he disagreed that such a possibility had been discussed before.
"It's a very happy occasion for us," said Scott P. Cooper, attorney for Austria in the U.S. litigation.
"But as far as I'm concerned, this is a very different situation than has ever been discussed. ... It's a unique opportunity."
A three-member Austrian panel will decide whether Austria legally obtained title to the Klimt paintings and whether the country's 1998 restitution laws have been met in this case.
Though both sides agree that the Nazis looted industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's art collection in 1938, Austria contends that a 1923 will of Adele Bloch-Bauer bequeathed the paintings to Austria's National Gallery.
Adele Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, at age 43, and her widowed husband was forced to leave behind his property when he fled to Switzerland during the war, thereafter writing a will that left the paintings and the rest of this stolen wealth to Altmann and other relatives.
Altmann maintains that under Austrian laws of succession, the paintings belong not to the Austrian government - which received the looted works from the Germans - but to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's heirs.
In addition, Altmann argues that after the war the Bloch-Bauer family was forced to relinquish claims on the Klimt works in order to export other property, while the Republic of Austria contends that the family willingly left the paintings behind.
One factor in accepting the arbitration agreement, said Altmann's attorney, was the plaintiff's age, 89.
"The idea that we will be able to resolve this before she is 90 years old is great," said Schoenberg.
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May 19, 2005
Painting dispute to be arbitrated
In an agreement that will end a eight-year legal battle, 89-year-old
Hills resident Maria Altmann and the Republic of Austria have agreed to end
their litigation in U.S. District Court regarding six Gustav Klimt paintings
and to submit the dispute to binding arbitration in Austria.
Since 1998, Altmann has been trying to reclaim six Klimt paintings, worth an
estimated $150 million, that were seized from her family by the Nazis in
1939 and have been in the possession of the Austrian National Museum for
more than 50 years.
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann was entitled
proceed in court against the government of Austria, which had sought to have
her lawsuit dismissed. A trial was scheduled to begin in October.
On Wednesday, attorneys for both sides said they were pleased by the
decision. "We are delighted that the case will be going back to Austria for
determination by Austrian law and by Austrians," said Scott P. Cooper,
attorney for Austria.
Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, who had fought to have Altmann's
case heard in the United States, also hailed the agreement and said he had
great faith in the three Austrian arbitrators chosen by both parties. "While
we had a court date, a trial could drag it out for years and years,"
Schoenberg said. "The binding final arbitration will be over this year, and
Maria will be 90 next year; the fact that this will be decided by the time
she is 90 makes me very happy."
Arbitration Set for Case of Looted Art
By FELICIA R. LEE
Published: May 19, 2005
A high-profile battle over the ownership of six Gustav Klimt paintings
looted by the Nazis was settled out of court yesterday, with the parties
handing the matter to a three-member panel in Austria. The decision ends the
possibility of a protracted legal fight in a case so complex that some
issues were settled by the United States Supreme Court.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Maria V. Altmann, the 89-year-old
niece and heir of an Austrian Jewish art collector, could pursue her lawsuit
against the Austrian government and its national art gallery for the return
of the paintings.
The works by Klimt, a major Art Nouveau figure, are estimated to be
more than $200 million. They belonged to Mrs. Altmann's family before the
Nazis annexed Austria, and Mrs. Altmann contends they were never legally
given to the gallery, home to five of the works for more than 50 years.
Austrian officials argue that the paintings were its legitimate property
despite the Nazis' illegitimately taking them after the family fled in 1938.
Mrs. Altmann and the Austrian finance ministry agreed yesterday that
binding arbitration panel would be appointed in Austria and that neither
side would appeal its decision, lawyers for both sides said. A decision is
expected in November.
"They'll decide two questions," said E. Randol Schoenberg, Mrs. Altmann's
lawyer. "How did Austria gain title to the paintings? And have the
conditions for restitution under the 1998 law been met?" He was referring to
a 1998 Austrian law stating that paintings can be returned to their former
owners if they were looted and never properly returned after the war, or
were donated under duress after the war.
Mrs. Altmann, who has lived in California since 1942, is the only surviving
heir of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a collector who died in 1945. His wife,
Adele, died in 1925. In her will, she asked her husband to leave the works
to the gallery at his death.
A sixth painting is the subject of a claim by another family, the heirs
Amalie Zukerkandl. All the parties in that case have agreed to submit that
dispute to the Austrian art restitution advisory board, with a right to
appeal to the three-member panel.