Woman wins leave to sue Austria in US for looted art

The Guardian 8 June 2004
Ian Traynor

The US supreme court delivered a landmark ruling yesterday entitling a Jewish fugitive from the Holocaust to sue the Austrian government in America for the return of valuable paintings allegedly looted from her family.

The justices ruled by six to three that Maria Altmann, an 88-year-old resident of Los Angeles, was entitled to sue Austria in the US for the return of a clutch of Art Deco paintings by Gustav Klimt.

The decision was a huge blow to both the US administration and the Austrian government, which opted to take the case all the way to the supreme court in a failed attempt to have it dismissed.

The surprise ruling could open the floodgates to lawsuits from Americans against foreign countries involving claims for compensation or restitution because of alleged injustices over the past 70 years.

Relatives of French Holocaust victims are attempting to sue the French national railways in the US because of French government complicity in the transports to the Nazi concentration camps during the second world war. Yesterday's ruling appears to give them a green light to continue.

The ruling also means that Japanese troops' wartime sex slave victims and their relatives in America can pursue their case against Japan in US courts.

The case of Austria versus Altmann has been closely watched by foreign governments because of the far-reaching implications for national sovereignty and international law.

During the war Ms Altmann fled from Vienna to the US via Liverpool. Her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch, a Jewish sugar magnate from what is now the Czech Republic, and his wife Adele Bloch-Bauer were friends and patrons of Klimt.

The Nazis confiscated Bloch's Klimt collection and robbed him of the rest of his fortune within a month of annexing Austria in 1938. He fled to Switzerland where he died virtually penniless in 1945.

The six paintings, valued at $150m (£82m), include a famous Klimt portrait of Mrs Bloch-Bauer. The shimmering portrait hangs among eight Klimts in a room that is the centrepiece of the national Austrian Gallery in Vienna. The painting is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.

The Austrian government maintains the paintings are rightfully the property of the state, tracing its arguments back to the 1920s.

Yesterday's ruling does not mean that Ms Altmann, the sole living heir of the Blochs, gets the paintings back. Rather it vindicates her decision to take Austria to court in the US.

In a four-year legal saga, she has won two court cases in California. It was the Austrian government that then decided to go all the way to the supreme court to test the principle that it should not be possible for sovereign foreign countries to be sued in the US courts.

It has lost that argument. Providing an explanation for the majority ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens said previous US legislation and gov ernment policy cited by the Austrians in their defence did not bar lawsuits in the US against foreign states.

The US justice and state departments strongly backed the Austrian government, lobbying the court to dismiss the case as harmful to the US national interest.

In earlier submissions to the hearings, the US government argued that a ruling in favour of Ms Altmann would trigger a wave of litigation against other countries, damage US foreign policy, and possibly encourage tit-for-tat laws and court cases against America in other countries.

Ms Altmann had been given little chance of winning the argument, a view that was encouraged by the hearings in the case at the supreme court in February.

"The government says this suit would affect foreign relations. Why should we look further?" Chief Justice William Rehnquist had said in February.

Yesterday he dissented from the majority view, saying: "The court injects great uncertainty into our relations with foreign sovereigns ... The court opens foreign nations worldwide to vast and potential liability for expropriation claims in regards to conduct that occurred generations ago."
© website copyright Central Registry 2023