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Threat Spurs Removal of Paintings

Austrian is held after an e-mail describing intent to destroy Klimt works owed to an L.A. woman.

January 21, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Five multimillion-dollar paintings by Gustav Klimt have been removed from the Austrian National Gallery in Vienna following a threat to destroy them.

The five paintings include "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," one of the artist's celebrated "gold" paintings and estimated to be worth as much as $120 million.

The five paintings made headlines this week when it was announced that an Austrian arbitration panel had ordered the Austrian government to return the works to Los Angeles resident Maria Altmann, 89, niece and heir of the original Jewish owner who was driven from Vienna and stripped of his property by the Nazis in 1938. The paintings had been held by the Austrian museum for more than 50 years.

Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday that he had received an e-mail Wednesday from someone who said he planned to destroy the paintings in order for "hungry people to get bread" -- apparently objecting to the idea that the Austrian government might use public funds to buy the paintings back from Altmann.

Schoenberg forwarded the e-mail to the country's Interior Ministry and museum officials.

Later Friday, police said they had arrested a 50-year-old man from Lower Austria province who was tracked down through his Internet provider.

Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia said the man, who was not identified, had confessed to e-mailing the threats.

"Now that the immediate threat for the paintings has been eliminated, it is up to the museum to decide whether the paintings will be exhibited again," Gollia said.

Schoenberg said that Austrian officials informed him Friday that the man had been apprehended. "The other reports from Austria say that the guy claims he was drunk when he wrote it," the attorney added.

Schoenberg also said that museum officials had indicated to him that the paintings may be rehung Monday while the museum was closed and back on public view Tuesday.

Since the decision to return the artworks to Altmann was announced, Schoenberg said, "there have apparently been throngs of people going to visit the paintings. Maybe they are not used to that. They'll be rethinking their security before putting it back up, I hope."

Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer said Austria was exploring ways to keep at least the two best-known pictures, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" and "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II," in the country. But she has also said the government cannot afford to buy back the paintings.

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Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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