Posted 2/20/2006 11:41 PM

Family to get back art taken in WWII
By Richard Willing, USA TODAY
She has pursued her family's stolen treasures for nearly eight years.
Maria Altmann stands next to a print of a Gustav Klimt painting of her aunt in this 2005 photo. Austria will deliver the original to the Holocaust survivor.
By Reed Saxon, AP

But Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, a 90-year-old widow and Holocaust survivor, says she never expected this: Austria's national gallery is preparing to send her and her four cousins five paintings worth an estimated $300 million, nearly 70 years after Nazis confiscated the artworks in her native Vienna.

A long-shot victory by Altmann at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 and a win before an Austrian arbitration panel in January mean that the paintings, by early 20th-century Austrian master Gustav Klimt, could be headed to Altmann's three-bedroom home as soon as next month.

The Austrian government has declined to bid on the works, which include a gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann's aunt, that has been reproduced on thousands of souvenirs. In a statement, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said the nation could not afford the $300 million valuation placed on the paintings by E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann's Los Angeles-based attorney.

"It's quite amazing," Altmann says. "I wanted some recognition that (the paintings) were our property. I never expected to actually have them."

The Altmann case has had an impact on the art world, says Robert Jarvis, art law specialist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Public museums are re-examining the backgrounds of many of their pieces. Some, such as New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, have agreed to return some pieces to their nation of origin rather than risk losing them in a lawsuit.

Family loved the arts

Altmann was born and reared in Vienna in a prosperous Jewish family that maintained an old-fashioned salon for painters, writers and musicians. In 1907, her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who supplied sugar to Vienna's confectioners, commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife, Adele. After she died of meningitis in 1925 at 42, Bloch-Bauer hung it in a private room in his mansion before a bowl of flowers that he replaced each day, Altmann recalls.

Altmann and her husband, Fritz, fled Vienna after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, and they eventually settled in Los Angeles. Bloch-Bauer, whose home and art treasures were forfeited to the German-controlled state, died in Zurich in 1945. In 1948, Altmann was told by the Austrian national gallery that the Klimts had been left to the gallery under terms of her aunt's will.

"We never had reason to doubt it," she says.

Altmann began to try to recover the Klimts in 1998 after learning from stories by Viennese journalist Hubertus Czernin that the gallery had not inherited the artworks but had bought them, beginning in 1941, from a Nazi doctor who wrote "Heil Hitler" on the bill of sale.

Citing U.S. and international law, Austria's lawyers argued that the national gallery could not be sued in an American court. They also argued that Adele Bloch-Bauer's will indicated that she wanted the paintings to go to the national gallery after she died.

But in June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann's lawsuit could go forward. That paved the way for the arbitrator's ruling last month that returned the paintings to her family.

Schoenberg, Altmann's attorney, says he valued the Klimts at $300 million after consulting several private galleries and museum officials in the USA and Europe. He says the paintings were appraised in the late 1990s at $110 million to $160 million. Publicity produced by Altmann's lawsuit helped drive up the value, Schoenberg says dealers told him.

The publicity also led directors of many public museums to re-evaluate art whose ownership history could be questioned, says Jarvis, author of an art law textbook.

"Art has a way of disappearing during wars and resurfacing years later," he says. "The problem now is you're never sure about your collection. Everyone can make a claim. Do you really want the future of your collection to be in the hands of a court?"

Re-examining art treasures

Institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are not waiting to be sued. On Feb. 3, the Met announced that it will return a 2,500-year-old vase and five other pieces to Italy in return for extended loans from Italian museums. The Met and the Italian government are scheduled today to announce the repatriation of six more pieces. Italy, Jarvis says, is one of an increasing number of countries asserting its ownership of art and antiquities that have been removed illegally often through the looting of ancient tombs and sold.

Schoenberg says he has received inquiries about the paintings from some prospective buyers. The paintings are being prepared for shipment in Vienna while an arbitration court decides who owns a sixth disputed Klimt: the gallery, Altmann and her cousins or another Viennese family whose ancestors purchased art from the painter.

Altmann says she has mixed feelings about her victory. She says she's delighted that "justice has been brought about." But she also hopes that an agreement can be reached to keep the paintings in Austria or sell them to another museum or private collector.

"I can't have them in my house," she says. "There is no security for this. I would be always worried about being hit over the head."