Archive for Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Court urges Austria to return paintings stolen by Nazis

January 17, 2006

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— It was a seven-year legal struggle with dazzling stakes - five precious paintings by Austrian icon Gustav Klimt that a California woman says were stolen from her Jewish family by the Nazis.

Now, a court ruling made public on Monday likely will resolve the high-profile case against Austria's government in her favor.

The Austrian arbitration court determined the country is legally obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann, one of the heirs of the family who owned them before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, the Austria Press Agency reported.

Altmann said she was awakened by a telephone call from her attorney at 7:30 a.m. Monday with the good news.

"I tell you, frankly, I had a very good feeling the last few days. I had a very positive feeling thinking things will go all right," said Altmann, reached by telephone at her home in Los Angeles.

Costliest concession

Though the court's ruling is nonbinding, both parties have previously said they will abide by it, and Austria's government is expected to give up the works of art that have been displayed for decades in Vienna's ornate Belvedere castle.

That would represent the costliest concession since Austria began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis. The pictures have been estimated to be worth at least $150 million.

But for lovers of Klimt, at least one of the disputed paintings - the oil and gold-encrusted portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" - is priceless. Altmann is the 89-year-old niece of Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925. The subject's family commissioned her famous portrait and owned it, along with the four other Klimt paintings disputed in the case.

Austria considers the paintings part of its national heritage. Klimt was a founder of the Vienna Secession art movement that for many became synonymous with Jugendstil, the German and central European version of Art Nouveau.

Bloch-Bauer represented the cream of Viennese society - a Jugendstil "Mona Lisa" with her shock of black hair, full lips, strong hands and expressive brown eyes set against Klimt's gold and gilt framework.

Paintings' fate undecided

Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said it was too early to say exactly what would happen to the paintings in light of the court's ruling. He said Altmann has four siblings who are also heirs with claims to the artwork.

"We're going to see how things play out now. I don't exactly know what the next step is," he told The Associated Press. "They're going to have to decide that collectively and they haven't made that decision yet because it's a little too early."

The case stemmed from a 1998 Austrian law that required federal museums to review their holdings for any works seized by the Nazis and determine whether they were obtained without remuneration.

A formal announcement of the court decision, and Austrian government reaction, were expected today.

Lawyers for the two sides have fought since 1998 over rights to the famed portrait and four other paintings - a lesser-known Bloch-Bauer portrait as well as "Apfelbaum" ("Apple Tree"), "Buchenwald/Birkenwald ("Beech Forest/Birch Forest) and "Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee" (Houses in Unterach on Attersee Lake").

The two sides began mediation in March, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that Altmann could sue the Austrian government.

Disputed intentions

After Bloch-Bauer died, the five pictures remained in her family's possession. Her husband fled to Switzerland after the Nazis took over Austria. The pictures were then taken by the Nazis and the Austrian Gallery, where they are now displayed, was made the formal owner.

Attorneys for Austria have argued Altmann's aunt intended to give the works to the Austrian Gallery. In any case, they say, the conflict should be settled in an Austrian court.

Altmann's lawyer contended the paintings were looted by the Nazis, and as such, U.S. law mandates their return.

A decision to return the paintings would be painful for Austria, even as it seeks to show it is ready to comply with all serious restitution claims arising from wrongs during the Nazi era.

Aside from art objects, Austria also has returned properties in government possession that were looted by the Nazis.

The country also begun paying compensation to Nazi victims from a $210 million fund endowed by the federal government, the city of Vienna and Austrian industries. The fund was created in 2001 to compensate those stripped of assets under the Third Reich.

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