Jewish owner's heiress to get priceless paintings

1945 16 January 2006

Vienna (dpa)- The Republic of Austria will hand over five priceless paintings by modern master Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) to the heiress of their former Jewish owner who fled the Nazis in Austria in the late 1930's, according to a decision on Monday.

The decision was by an arbitration panel, whose ruling had been accepted as binding by both sides in advance. There is no further instance of appeal.

It means that the five paintings - Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Apfelbaum, Buchenwald/Birkenwald, and Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee - will go to heiress Maria Altmann aged 90, who lives in the United States.

Formally, the final decision must still be made by Austrian Education and Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer. Altmann's lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, already said in a phone interview from Los Angeles on Monday that the decision would make the heirs 'extremely happy'.

Originally, the paintings were the property of Adele Bloch-Bauer. When she died in 1926, she willed them with all her other property to her husband, major sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.
In her will was a clause asking her husband to leave the paintings in turn after his death to Austrian museums.

However, at the end of the 1930's, he was forced to flee the Nazis in Austria to Switzerland, where he willed the paintings to his own family before dying in 1946. His closest living relative is his niece Maria Altmann.

Lawyers later argued that in the mid-1920's, Adele Bloch-Bauer could not have known that her family would be persecuted by the Nazis.

The Klimt pictures, including the two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, remained in Austria in post-war decades, and for years have been the centrepiece of the Austrian Gallery at the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna.

The ownership dispute dragged on for years, with court cases in the United States. Finally, to end the stalemate, both sides agreed to the panel in Austria, which would make the final decision.

The Austrian authorities in immediate post-war years have often been accused of blackmailing Nazi victims by holding back their works of art in exchange for allowing them to take other possessions out of the country.

When Altmann visited Austria in 1999, she recalled that in post-war Austria the atmosphere had been 'like a wall you couldn't fight against. We knew treasures like Klimt would not be handed out, so we agreed to give them (to the museum) so the other things were handed over.'
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