Vienna Prepares to Return Art Looted by Nazis

Vienna's Belvedere Gallery packed five Gustav Klimt paintings Monday for return to a California woman whose family owned the works when they were stolen by the Nazis. The Dutch government agreed to return some 200 artworks to descendants of a Jewish art dealer whose collection had been seized by Hitler's top aide.

About 10,000 people had lined up for hours over the weekend for a final glimpse of the cherished Klimt paintings, which have hung for decades at the gallery in Belvedere Castle and are considered national treasures.

Last month, an arbitration court ruled that the paintings must be returned to Maria Altmann of Beverly Hills. Austria had hoped to find a way to buy back the paintings, but officials conceded last week they could not afford the $300 million price tag.

Austria's decision to give up the artworks represents its costliest concession since it began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis. The cultural property return law was enacted in 1998.

Gallery director Gerbert Frodl noted with a touch of irony that Monday was the 88th anniversary of Klimt's death. Frodl said the museum's restorers were conducting a routine examination of the paintings to ensure everything was in order before they were packed for shipping.

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

Although she waged a seven-year legal battle to recover them, she also made clear that she preferred the works to remain on public display rather than disappear into a private collection.

Among the Klimt works is the gold-flecked "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," which has been widely replicated on souvenirs.

The other paintings are a lesser-known Bloch-Bauer portrait, as well as "Apfelbaum" ("Apple Tree"), "Buchenwald/Birkenwald" ("Beech Forest/Birch Forest") and "Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee" ("Houses in Unterach on Attersee Lake").

Altmann is Bloch-Bauer's niece. The five paintings remained in her family's possession after Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, but the Nazis seized them when they took over Austria and Altmann's husband fled to Switzerland. The Belvedere gallery was made the formal owner.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said Austria has returned more than 5,000 artworks to their rightful owners in recent years, including 16 other Klimt works restored to Altmann or her relatives.

The country also has begun paying compensation to Nazi victims from a $210 million fund endowed by the federal government, the city of Vienna and Austrian industries.

In Holland, the government said it will return 202 paintings and other works to the descendants of Jacques Goudstikker. He was the country's biggest art dealer before World War II. He fled the country at the start of the war with his wife and son, losing an estimated 1,300 artworks. He died after falling through a trap door on a ship heading to South America.

About 800 of his artworks were seized by Hitler's right-hand man, Field Marshall Hermann Goering, and 300, mostly by Dutch artists, were returned to the Netherlands' government after the war.

Monday's decision was a victory for Goudstikker's family, who had fought for years to regain possession of the artwork valued in the tens of millions of dollars. The works had been ceded by Goudstikker's widow in a much-disputed settlement in 1952.

The government said Dutch museums would keep 40 works that were directly covered in the earlier settlement, and 21 other items it said were never part of the original collection.

Medy van der Laan, undersecretary for culture and education, said the government found that returning the works was the morally correct action. Museums won't be compensated, she said.

"This is a bloodletting for some of our museums," she said.

The works that will be returned currently hang in museums around the country, and include several masterpieces at the national Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Best-known are a 1649 Salomon van Ruysdael river landscape, and a 1671 Jan Steen oil painting, "The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia."