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Woman Can Sue Austria Over Art Seized by Nazis

Supreme Court ruling may encourage others to go after governments for disputed property.

June 08, 2004|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

An elderly Los Angeles woman who has fought for years to recover six paintings worth an estimated $150 million that were seized by the Nazis from her family in Vienna in 1939 is entitled to proceed in court against the government of Austria, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Austria, supported by the U.S. Justice Department, had argued that it was immune under a federal law designed to block most suits against foreign governments in U.S. courts.

But the justices, ruling 6 to 3, disagreed, siding instead with 88-year-old Maria V. Altmann, a former dress shop owner in Los Angeles who arrived here as a refugee in 1942.

The contested paintings, by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, have been on display in the Austrian Gallery, a national museum that is a government entity. The most famous one depicts Adele Bloch-Bauer, a prominent patron of the arts in prewar Vienna, who died in 1925 and was Altmann's aunt.

"It is totally wonderful that justice seems to prevail," a jubilant Altmann said. "This is not totally a Jewish case. It is a case of justice," she emphasized in a telephone interview.

"I never expected this decision," Altmann said Monday. "I was hoping for it, but I was not counting on it."

Altmann's victory may open courtrooms for other Holocaust survivors and heirs of people who perished. Already, for example, survivors and their families have filed suit in New York federal courts against the French and Polish governments stemming from actions that occurred during the Nazi era, said Michael Bazyler, a professor at Whittier Law School and the author of "Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America's Courts."

The ruling also might allow a trial of claims by women who have sued Japan over allegations that they were used as sex slaves by the Japanese armed forces during World War II.

However, in each of those cases, as in Altmann's case, the governments involved still have other substantial legal defenses.

Altmann said she hoped the Austrian government would now be willing to negotiate a settlement that would allow the paintings eventually to hang in galleries in the United States and Canada, where some of her relatives live.

Scott Cooper, of Proskauer Rose in Century City, who represents Austria, said the government had made "no decisions on the next steps." He emphasized, however, that the high court's ruling left several important legal issues unresolved. The Austrian government has maintained that the paintings "are national treasures and part of the cultural heritage of the Republic."

The paintings belonged to Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar magnate, arts patron and foe of the Nazis. He fled Vienna in 1938 as Hitler was on the verge of annexing Austria and died in poverty in Zurich in 1945.

Bloch-Bauer received no compensation for the paintings, his home, a valuable porcelain collection or the sugar factory he left behind. Some of his 19th century paintings were sent to Hitler and Hermann Goering, one of Hitler's top aides.

The shimmering gold "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," painted by Klimt at the request of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and now estimated to be worth $50 million to $60 million, is one of the central holdings of the Austrian Gallery. It appears on promotional materials for the museum and has been made even more widely known by its use as a marketing tool for other items -- including a line of women's clogs.

Altmann grew up viewing the painting. "I saw it every Sunday when I went to my aunt's house for lunch in Vienna," she said. After the Nazi takeover of Austria, Altmann, then 22, escaped. By 1942, she had made her way to California and three years later became a U.S. citizen.

In 1998, Altmann began trying to get the paintings back. After two years of unsuccessful negotiations, she went to court. Her suit, filed by E. Randall Schoenberg of Los Angeles' Burris & Schoenberg, contends that the Nazis, in violation of international law, took the paintings to "Aryanize" them and that the Austrian government of that era was complicit in the seizure from Altmann's uncle.

The suit also contends that the current Austrian government deceived Altmann and other heirs of her uncle about how it had obtained the paintings.

Austria's attorneys contend that Adele Bloch-Bauer in her will had asked Ferdinand to give the Klimt paintings to the Austrian Gallery after her death. Altmann counters that Adele was simply airing a desire that had no binding effect and that her uncle "never would have donated anything to Austria after the way he had been treated." Ferdinand specified in his will that his large estate be shared by two nieces and a nephew, of whom Altmann is the only one still living.

Both a U.S. district judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Altmann had a right to take her claims to trial. But Austria and the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

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