Canadians regain Nazi-looted art

The Toronto Star 14 August 2006
Ross Marowits

MONTREAL—The Canadian heirs to a stolen art fortune are at the centre of an international drama that has all the makings of a great Hollywood blockbuster.

It features Nazi looting, Hitler's nephew, a painting sold for a reported $135 million, stolen diamonds, the Holocaust and the U.S. Supreme Court.

At its core, however, it is a story of a family's determination.

The lead character is a spry 90-year-old retired Beverly Hills boutique owner, the public face of a legal challenge against the Austrian government. But Maria Altmann's story also involves her Canadian relatives, who have a majority claim on a family legacy estimated to be worth nearly $300 million (all figures in U.S. dollars).

Altmann, Dr. Nelly Auersperg of Vancouver, her brother Francis Gutmann of Montreal and cousins Trevor Mantle of Vancouver and George Bentley, originally of Vancouver, have already earned millions from the record sale of a 1907 portrait by Gustav Klimt that was stolen by the Nazis in 1938. Cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder reportedly paid $135 million for the painting of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, this year.

The famous painting of a Viennese woman in a gold gown was returned to the family in January, following a seven-year battle with Austria. Another four paintings worth an estimated $150 million are to be sold by Christie's of New York this fall.

"I feel very strongly that these things should be seen," Gutmann said in 2001 after selling two sketches of Klimt's 1907 painting of Adele, valued at $20,000 each, to the National Gallery in Ottawa.

The family's intriguing tale dates back to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, an industrialist who commissioned Klimt to paint his young wife. She died in 1925 at age 43. Ferdinand died penniless and childless just after the conclusion of the war.

Altmann's brother Poldie Bentley, who changed his surname from Bloch-Bauer, co-founded forestry giant Canfor after fleeing Austria. According to a 2002 deposition, Altmann said Hitler's nephew gave Poldie three days to flee Vienna in gratitude for having rescued him from a ski mountain in 1934.

The Bloch-Bauer family's story may even one day hit the big screen. A book is being written by a Los Angeles Times reporter and the family has been approached by several people wanting to make a movie.

In the meantime, Concordia University will launch a travelling exhibition and educational campaign in October to teach people about the restitution of Nazi looted art.
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