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Maria Altmann dies at 94; won fight for return of Klimt portrait seized by Nazis

The 82-year-old grandmother went to the U.S. Supreme Court in successful battle for famous portrait of her aunt and other artworks.

February 08, 2011|Anne-Marie O'Connor, Special to The Times

Ferdinand fled to Switzerland, leaving the palatial estate he had shared with Adele and their formidable collections of art and porcelain. The Austrian National Gallery snapped up the gold portrait of Adele, which was delivered with a letter proclaiming "Heil, Hitler!"

From his exile, Ferdinand unsuccessfully tried to recoup the portraits of his wife and other paintings but died at a Zurich hotel in November 1945, seven months after Hitler's suicide signaled the downfall of Nazi Germany.

More than 50 years later, in 1999, Altmann was a widow with four adult children and grandchildren when she learned details of the Nazi dispersal of her family's art collection. Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin had obtained access to long-sealed state archives that had covered up the thefts from wealthy Jewish families, including the Bloch-Bauers and the Rothschilds. Czernin's reports led the Austrian government to pass a new restitution law, opening the way for the return of looted art from the Nazi era.

Altmann seized the chance to stake her family's claim. Armed with a copy of her aunt's will that Czernin had uncovered, she and her young lawyer, Schoenberg, argued that Adele had not given the paintings away to the state-run gallery; she had only asked her husband, who owned them, to make the gift. In his will, he left them to Altmann and two of her older siblings, Luise and Robert.

Viennese authorities insisted Adele's will was uncontestable. But correspondence between Austrian authorities in the postwar era showed they were aware they were on shaky legal ground when they held on to the paintings.

Schoenberg left his law firm to pursue the case, which most viewed as an uphill battle. Austria insisted the case be heard there, initially demanding a $1.8-million deposit against legal costs. Schoenberg won a 2001 victory in a Los Angeles federal court saying the dispute could proceed in U.S. courts.

Austria appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2004 that the case could go forward. When Schoenberg suggested they accept Austria's offer to resolve the case with a three-man arbitration panel instead, "I thought he was crazy," Altmann said.

It was a great surprise when the Austrian panel ruled, in January 2006, that the five Klimt paintings should be returned.

LACMA officials prepared a room to display the paintings, hoping to acquire the golden portrait of Adele, and were disappointed by Lauder's purchase.

By the time of the Christie's auction in November 2006, Altmann's health was fading. She donated to the arts, especially the opera, but otherwise her life changed little. She resisted family efforts to get her to redecorate the house she had shared for years with Fritz.

Altmann is survived by three sons, Charles of Cheviot Hills, Peter of Puget Sound, Wash., and James of Agoura Hills; a daughter, Margie Crain of Solana Beach; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

O'Connor is a former Times staff writer.

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