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Austria loses fight to keep Klimt's 170m gilded masterpieces

Paul Arendt
Tuesday March 21, 2006
The Guardian
 

A collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt, stolen by the Nazis in 1938,
has been restored to its heir in California after an eight-year legal
battle. The five works, together worth 170m, now belong to 90-year-old
Maria Altmann, who fled the Nazis following the annexation of Austria.

Altmann has lent the paintings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
for a temporary exhibition. She hopes that the exhibition, which opens
on April 4, will attract a buyer. "My wish, and the wish of the other
heirs, is that they will be bought by people who will have them on
public display," she told the Guardian. "I can promise you they won't
hang in my living room."

  The most valuable painting is Adele Bloch Bauer I, showcasing Klimt's
gilded style and one of the most recognisable works of art in the
world. It was commissioned by the sitter's husband, Ferdinand Bloch
Bauer, Altmann's uncle and the original owner of the collection.

Until recently, the Klimt paintings hung at the Belvedere Museum in
Vienna, where they were the subject of an eight-year legal dispute
between Altmann's family and the Austrian government, which eventually
reached the US Supreme Court. The case then went on to an arbitration
court, which ruled that Austria was obliged to return the paintings.
However, the government was allowed a period to raise enough money to
buy them back. There was political and cultural uproar when the
Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schussel revealed last month that they had
no plans to do so. Although various groups are still trying to raise
funds, it seems unlikely that the paintings will return permanently to
Vienna.

The Altmanns' lawyer insisted the family was open to all possibilities.
However, the long fight for restitution appears to have left Maria
Altmann with a dim view of the Austrian authorities. "It didn't have to
come to this," she said. "Seven years ago I wrote the Austrians a
wonderful letter, saying that I would see to it the portraits would not
leave Austria, and they never even bothered to answer me. Well, I guess
they're sorry now."