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Austria to Give Klimt Paintings to L.A. Woman

January 18, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

VIENNA — Austria said Tuesday that it would honor an arbitration court decision and give five prized Gustav Klimt paintings to a Los Angeles woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family.

Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer made the announcement a day after the ruling that the country was obligated to give the paintings to Maria V. Altmann.

Altmann, 89, is an heir of the family that owned the paintings when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.

The paintings' estimated worth is $150 million. But for many Klimt lovers, at least one of the pictures -- "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," a gold-encrusted oil painting of the original owner's wife -- is priceless.

Altmann said Monday that she would not object to any of the artworks' remaining at Austria's National Gallery, where they have hung since shortly after World War II, but Gehrer said Austria can't afford to buy back the paintings, citing media reports that the Bloch-Bauer portrait, also called "Golden Adele," is worth 70 million to 100 million euros, or $85 million to $120 million.

"Seventy million euros amounts to the whole budget for all museums in Austria -- all public museums," Gehrer told state radio. "That means we are not financially able to make purchases here, but talks will be held. Perhaps there are sponsors or the family itself is prepared to make something available as a loan."

Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said after the arbitration court's ruling that Altmann had four siblings who were also heirs with claims to the artwork.

On Tuesday, Schoenberg said he thought Austrian officials would "probably be trying to find private donors" to pay for the paintings. "I certainly understand why they wouldn't have sufficient money in public coffers to pay for something like this."

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