Court allows U.S. lawsuit to regain art Nazis stole

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, Austria, in 1939 is entitled to proceed in court against the government of Austria, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

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


But the justices, in a 6-3 ruling, disagreed, siding instead with 88-year-old Maria V. Altmann, a former dress-shop owner in Los Angeles who arrived in the United States 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 of the paintings is one depicting 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," Altmann said yesterday. "This is not totally a Jewish case. It is a case of justice."

Altmann's victory could open the courthouse doors for other Holocaust survivors and heirs of people who perished during the Holocaust.

Already, for example, survivors and their families have filed lawsuits in New York federal courts against the French and Polish governments stemming from actions that occurred during the Nazi reign of terror, said Michael Bazyler, professor of law at Whittier Law School and 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.

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

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

Scott Cooper of Proskauer Rose, a Los Angeles law firm that 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 contended 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, patron of the arts and foe of the Nazis. He fled Vienna in 1938 as Hitler's forces were on the verge of annexing Austria and died in poverty in Zurich, Switzerland, 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 paintings were sent to Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, one of Hitler's key aides.

The shimmering gold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, painted by Klimt at the request of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and now considered worth $50 million to $60 million, is today one of the central holdings of the Austrian Gallery. It appears on promotional materials for the museum.

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 lawsuit contends that the Nazis took the paintings to "Aryanize" them in violation of international law and that the Austrian government of that era complied in the seizure of the paintings from Altmann's uncle.

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


Austria's attorneys contend that Adele Bloch-Bauer in her will had asked her husband, Ferdinand, to give the Klimt paintings to the Austrian Gallery after her death. Altmann counters that Bloch-Bauer 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 Bloch-Bauer specified in his will that his large estate be shared by two nieces and a nephew. Altmann is the only one still living.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.