Trial of Nazi plunder leads to high court

USA Today 23 February 2004
Richard Willing

The Gestapo, the man explained, needed to make an inventory of her jewels while tax liabilities were sorted out in the aftermath of Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria a few weeks earlier. Altmann, then 22 and a bride of less than six months, handed over her diamond necklace and earrings. "I was very young and innocent," Altmann, now 88, recalls during an interview at her home in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, nearly 66 years after that innocence was shattered, Altmann will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to help her recover even more valuable treasures taken by the Nazis: six paintings valued by her attorney at $110 million and held by Austria's National Gallery.

The works, once owned by Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, include a well-known portrait of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer, by the Austrian master Gustav Klimt.

No one disputes that the Nazis forced Altmann's uncle to forfeit the paintings to pay a tax aimed at Jewish art owners. But Austria's government-owned gallery says it acquired the works in 1948 as a gift from Altmann's brother. The gallery argues that U.S. law does not permit Altmann to sue a sovereign nation for long-ago deeds.

Altmann says the gift was a forced transaction. And she says the law Austria relies on makes an exception for art that was once seized by the Nazis. She is asking the Supreme Court to allow her to sue the Austrian government in U.S. federal court.

The stakes are huge. If Altmann wins, legal analysts say, it could open the door to multimillion-dollar lawsuits against national galleries around the world, challenging their claims to World War II-era art and any other objects whose legal ownership is in question. Experts in art law say the number of such disputes has increased in recent years, although most have involved art once seized by Nazis that wound up with private collectors.

An Altmann victory also could expose foreign governments to a range of damage claims for evils done by their predecessors. In New York City, Holocaust survivors are suing the French national railroad that transported Jews to Nazi death camps. Former World War II "sex slaves" and forced laborers have sued Japan and Mexico, so far unsuccessfully.

U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the Justice Department's top appeals lawyer, says an Altmann victory could undercut U.S. foreign policy and invite reprisals by foreign courts. He has joined the case on Austria's side.

For Altmann, the matter is personal. She says she cannot abide the "injustice" of her family's masterpieces remaining in Austria, which in her view was at best a passive onlooker during the destruction of that nation's Jews. Vienna's nearly 185,000 Jews, a fifth of the city's prewar Jewish population, were reduced by war's end to about 800.

Altmann fled to America in 1942 and settled in Los Angeles, where she sold women's clothes. The paintings, she says, are mementos of her "other life." A family of culture.

Altmann was born in Vienna in February 1916, the fifth and last child of a prosperous commercial lawyer. Her mother and aunt, the Bauer sisters, had married brothers named Bloch. The families placed a premium on culture and spent freely on paintings and fine porcelain. Maria's father, Gustav, played chamber music with friends each Friday on a cello built by Stradivarius. Her uncle Ferdinand assembled what art historian Sophie Lillie describes as one of Vienna's finest prewar collections.

Ferdinand's wife, Adele, who was childless, hosted a salon where Viennese artists and intellectuals gathered. Richard Strauss, the composer, and Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav, were regulars.

Adele, tall, thin-faced, her black hair tucked back in a chignon, smoked cigarettes in long, elegant holders and presided with her omnipresent German shepherd, Peter, at her side. Her 1907 portrait by Gustav Klimt, another regular at the salon, shows Aunt Adele in all her coy hauteur. The Austrian National Gallery has used Aunt Adele's image from the oil and gold painting on posters and souvenirs, including jigsaw puzzles and beverage coasters.

Adele's death in 1925 from meningitis devastated Uncle Ferdinand, whom the family called Ferry. Adele was only 42. Ferry hung her portrait in a "memorial room" in his grand home. Altmann, who visited often, recalls that a vase of fresh flowers was always there.

The family scattered during the war. The family businesses — a sweater factory and a sugar plant — were seized by the Germans to cover huge taxes that were designed to force Jews to forfeit their property.

Uncle Ferry's Klimt paintings and Altmann's diamond earrings and necklace were seized that way. Researcher Lillie recently found that the forfeited jewels later were bought by Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's top deputy. Altmann got them back after Goering was captured by the Allies in 1945.

The Allies also helped recover the Klimt paintings, which were turned over to the Austrian National Gallery. In 1948, Maria Altmann's brother Robert acknowledged that the paintings were gallery property. Maria Altmann says her brother was forced to do so in return for the Austrian government's permission to send several other artworks the Allies had recovered to Canada, where he had resettled.

The gallery said it had an additional claim on the famous gold portrait of Aunt Adele. Austrian officials asserted that Adele had intended to leave the painting to the gallery when she died.

"We were told the paintings were left to the gallery," Maria Altmann says. "We assumed this is what it was."

Records opened

There matters stood until 1998. That year, American descendants of Austrian Jews alleged that two other paintings on loan from the Austrian government to a museum in New York City had been looted by the Nazis. In response, the Austrian government's culture ministry opened its records. They showed that a remarkable number of treasures had been acquired after the Germans annexed Austria.

Using the records, Viennese journalist Hubertus Czernin concluded that Adele Bloch-Bauer had not willed her portrait to the gallery in 1925, as gallery officials claimed. Instead, he said, she merely had asked that her husband, Ferdinand, do so in his will. Ferdinand died in exile in 1945 without making the bequest.

The Bloch-Bauers' other Klimt paintings, Czernin wrote, had been obtained by the gallery under duress.

Armed with such evidence, Maria Altmann persuaded the Austrian government to give back more than $1 million worth of porcelain and Klimt drawings. But the Austrians balked at returning the six Klimt paintings.

in federal court in California. In 2002, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed that U.S. courts had jurisdiction to decide claims against the Austrian government. The Austrian government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Altmann is relying on a 1976 law that allows foreign governments to be sued here for commercial but not political acts. But the law usually has been invoked in relatively minor cases involving forfeited property or defaulted bonds. And it has not been applied retroactively to events of the World War II era.

To do so, says Scott Cooper, Austria's Los Angeles-based attorney, would be "most confusing, most problematic."

Japan and Mexico have filed briefs in Austria's favor. Olson argued in a brief that allowing Altmann's case to go forward could have "serious consequences for ... foreign relations." But Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, says, "This case is about the stalling and delaying of the parents' generation in order to profit from the theft of the grandparents' generation."

If she wins before the Supreme Court, Altmann still will face a trial in federal court to determine whether she is the owner of the Klimt paintings. Even if she won there, Cooper says, she probably would be granted monetary damages rather than the artworks.

Altmann says she knows that her case is a long shot. She persists, she says, out of a "desire that they finally see there is such a thing as justice."
© website copyright Central Registry 2023