In a closely watched ruling over ownership of artworks looted by the Nazis, an Austrian arbitration court has ordered its government to turn over five multimillion-dollar paintings by Gustav Klimt to a Jewish woman whose family fled Vienna in 1939.
Maria Altmann, who now lives in Los Angeles, fought a seven-year legal battle for the paintings, which have an estimated value of $150 million. The most valuable is the renowned 1907 portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, which one Klimt expert called “the most important painting that has ever been restituted” in a Nazi art case.
There was no immediate response from the Austrian government, but Wilfried Seipel, director of Vienna’s museum for fine arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, told the Austrian Press Assn. that although “a precious asset of the Austrian Gallery has been lost,” the decision “should be accepted.”
Under an agreement between the Austrian government and Altmann, the arbitration court’s decision will be the last word.
“This is really David and Goliath,” said Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, which staged the first U.S. exhibition of Klimt’s work in 1959. She hailed the court ruling against the Austrian government as a surprising but significant move. “Klimt’s paintings are extraordinarily rare, and most of the major ones are in Austria.”
In March, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision gave Altmann the right to sue Austria in U.S. courts, she and attorneys for the Austrian government agreed to end the roller-coaster of litigation by submitting the dispute to binding arbitration in Austria. The court ruling, which became public Monday, says that Austria is legally obligated to return the artworks, which have been held by the Austrian National Gallery for more than 50 years. A formal announcement of the decision is expected today in Austria.
Altmann’s attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said he learned of the ruling via a 12:30 a.m. e-mail. “The arbitrators wanted us to keep it confidential, but the news leaked,” Schoenberg said Monday at hastily assembled news conference at Altmann’s Cheviot Hills home.
Altmann, 89, is among the heirs to the art collection of her uncle, sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, whose wife, Adele, was Klimt’s patron -- and, historians have suggested, probably the artist’s lover.
The five paintings include three landscapes and two portraits of her aunt, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” one of the artist’s celebrated “gold paintings,” adorned with metallic paint.
Surrounded by family members in her living room Monday, Altmann wore a smile as bright as her red sweater. “It’s about time,” she said. “I’m very happy; I cannot deny that it came to a very happy solution. I sort of expected it -- I’m a very positive person, and I somehow always hoped that it would go that way. There were setbacks, but I was always hoping.”
When asked whether she was pleased to have the matter resolved before her 90th birthday, she wisecracked: “I’d rather be 50 -- but it’s all right.”
Schoenberg said the future of the paintings remained to be determined. “It’s a decision the whole family has to make; there are four other heirs, we haven’t wanted to count the chickens before they hatch,” he said. “Let’s let it sink in a little bit. No decision has been made yet.”
Despite her attorney’s caution about discussing the disposition of the paintings, Altmann was adamant that they should remain in public institutions. “I would not want any private person to buy these paintings,” she said. “It is very meaningful to me that they are seen by anybody who wants to see them, because that would have been the wish of my aunt.”
Altmann said she would not object to any of the artworks remaining at the Austrian National Gallery, so long as restitution was made. “After the way they behaved, I have no resentment,” she said. “First of all, I’m not a person who has a lot of resentments to begin with. I was very much hoping it would never come to all this fighting and arguing.”
Although legal experts say it is unlikely that Austria would dispute the court’s ruling, the loss of the paintings could have a profound effect on the country. For Austrians, even those who believe the court made the right decision, the paintings’ move to the other side of the Atlantic symbolizes a loss of a piece of national heritage.
Edwin M. Smith, a professor of international law and academic director for graduate and international programs for the USC law school, said that for all the decision’s importance to Altmann and Austria, it posed no precedent for any other cases. Arbitration is a popular option, he said, for just that reason.
“You get the dispute resolved but you don’t set any precedent for other disputes,” Smith said. “Arbitrations only occur when the parties agree to the process of arbitration.” But for Altmann and Austria, “this is the end of the ballgame,” he said.
Klimt, born near Vienna in 1862, is known for his decorous murals and sensuous smaller nudes and portraits, which often provoked controversy but won him a wide audience. He died in 1918.
Beyond the five paintings covered by this week’s ruling, one other Klimt sought by Altmann, “Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl,” will remain at the Austrian National Gallery because, Schoenberg said, the family of the woman in the portrait is also claiming ownership.
Although the Altmann case represents the highest-profile example in recent years, the controversy over Nazi-looted artwork has been heating up for more than a decade.
In 1998 as a result of a handful of well-publicized claims against museums by Jewish heirs, the American Assn. of Museum Directors issued guidelines calling for museums to search their collections for artworks that had been looted by the Nazis.
This is the second major restitution judgment for Altmann, who last year shared with her relatives $21 million from the Claims Restitution Tribunal, a fund established in 1998 in the settlement of class-action lawsuits brought against Swiss banks.
The suit charged that the Swiss banks collaborated with the Nazis and withheld from Holocaust survivors and their heirs money deposited for safekeeping before World War II. A consortium of Swiss financial institutions agreed to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust victims.
Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.