Threats target Austrian art ordered returned to LA woman

1945 20 January 2006

VIENNA, Austria (AP) - An Austrian museum on Friday ordered that five precious Gustav Klimt paintings be taken down following threats that they would be destroyed to prevent them from being returned to a Los Angeles woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family.

The Belvedere Museum said the move had been recommended by the Interior Ministry following e-mailed threats. The museum said it intends to place the paintings in a storage depot.

On Monday, an arbitration court issued a non-binding ruling that the Austrian government was obligated to return the paintings to Maria Altmann to comply with laws mandating the restitution of art objects to Holocaust victims.

Culture Minister Elizabeth Gehrer said Austria would comply with the court's decision.

Altmann, 89, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, was one of the heirs of the family that owned the paintings before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.

Gehrer said her ministry was exploring ways to be able to keep at least two of the best known pictures on display in Austria, but ruled out buying them, saying there was no money for such a solution.

On Thursday, Austria's Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said the government was considering "certain tax incentives" for potential sponsors for the buyback of the paintings.

Austria's decision to give up the artworks that have been displayed for decades in Vienna's ornate Belvedere castle represents the costliest concession since it began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis.

The paintings' estimated worth is at least $150 million.

Austria considers the paintings part of its national heritage. Klimt was a founder of the Vienna Secession art movement that for many became synonymous with Jugendstil, the German and central European version of Art Nouveau.

The Altmann case stemmed from a 1998 Austrian law that required federal museums to review their holdings for any works seized by the Nazis and determine whether they were obtained without remuneration.
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