Survivor’s battle to retrieve her art.

Canadian Jewish News 19 February 2009
By Joseph Serge

The story of how Maria Altmann, an elderly Holocaust survivor, took on the Austrian government to reclaim her family’s looted Gustav Klimt paintings is a fascinating David and Goliath story.

The first of two paintings of Adele painted by Klimt

Adele’s Wish, a documentary that recounts Altmann’s experience, gets its Toronto premiere at the Canadian Art Reel Artists Film Festival, running from Feb. 26 to March 1.

The film, directed by Terrence Turner, is as informative as it is thrilling. The story is told as a series of interviews with many people – lawyers, professors, historians and Altmann herself – seamlessly edited together as a continuing narrative.

Altmannn is the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose husband Fritz commissioned famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt to paint two portraits of Adele in the early 20th century.

These paintings and three other Klimts were stolen from the Bloch-Bauer estate by the Nazis in 1938 after the annexation of Austria. After the war, the paintings were housed in the Austrian National Gallery.

After a 1998 repatriation law was passed in Austria, supposedly making it easier for Holocaust Survivor families to reclaim their looted possessions, Altmann, now in the United States, attempted to get back the Klimt paintings.

However, the Austrian government was reluctant to give up these priceless paintings, arguing that Adele, who died in 1937,  had bequeathed them to the National Gallery in her will.

Altmann hired lawyers to pursue her case, and the Austrian government put up hurdles at every turn. What followed was a battle, not just legal but moral and ethical, that ended up involving the U.S. government and the Supreme Court.

Adele’s Wish is a highly enjoyable and well put together documentary that tells this, at times complex, legal drama in a fast-paced and easily understandable fashion.

Adele’s Wish screens March 1 at 2:30 p.m. at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC, 750 Spadina Ave.

The Canadian Art Reel Artists Film Festival is a project of the Canadian Art Foundation and is in its sixth year.

Other highlights include the world premiere of a film on David Lynch’s exceptional art practice, the Canadian premiere of a film on the psychological portraits of Alice Neel, and the world premiere of Georg Baselitz: Making Art after Auschwitz and Dresden, an engrossing profile of the postwar German artist who, literally, turned the art world upside down.

For tickets and other information, go to or call 416-368-8854, ext. 102.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024