Court Rules Austria Must Return Art Looted by Nazis

Maria Altmann fondly remembers her family's five precious Gustav Klimt paintings — as well as the bitter series of events that took them away.

As a newlywed in Austria, Altmann was forced to watch as the Nazis seized power in 1938 and then stole the possessions of her wealthy Jewish family.

She and her husband — who had been detained in the Dachau concentration camp — eventually escaped to safety in America.

"My husband was in the concentration camp and everything was taken — but material values at the time didn't matter one bit. It was only after that it did matter."

Altmann, now 89, celebrated news Monday that an Austrian arbitration court had determined that the country is legally obligated to give her family back the paintings.

The Klimt paintings have been estimated to be worth at least $150 million and are considered national treasures by Austria.

"I tell you, frankly, I had a very good feeling the last few days. I had a very positive feeling, thinking things will go all right," said Altmann, reached by telephone at her home in Los Angeles. "I'm thrilled that it came to this end."

Though the court's ruling is nonbinding, both parties have previously said they will abide by it, and Austria's government is expected to give up the works of art that have been displayed for decades in Vienna's ornate Belvedere Castle.

Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said it was too early to say exactly what would happen to the paintings in light of the court's ruling. He said Altmann has four siblings — two in Vancouver, British Columbia, one in Montreal and one in Alamo, Calif. — who are also heirs with claims to the artwork.

"We're going to see how things play out now. I don't exactly know what the next step is," he said. "They're going to have to decide that collectively and they haven't made that decision yet because it's a little too early."

The 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.

A formal announcement of the court decision, and Austrian government reaction, were expected Tuesday. The paintings' return would represent the costliest concession since Austria began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis.

One of the disputed paintings — the oil and gold-encrusted 1907 portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" — is considered priceless. Altmann is the niece of Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925. Her family commissioned the five works.

Lawyers for the two sides have fought since 1998 over rights to the famed portrait and four other paintings — 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").

The two sides began mediation in March, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that Altmann, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, could sue the Austrian government.

Jane Kallir, co-director of New York City's Galerie St. Etienne, which introduced Klimt to the United States in 1959, calls the 1907 portrait "literally priceless." Stylistically similar to Klimt's world-renowned "The Kiss," the painting is replicated on T-shirts, cups and other souvenirs.