Austria must return five Nazi-looted Klimt paintings to the heirs of the Jewish collector Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer

“Morally, this is a gain for Austria” not a loss, says Maria Altmann


Arbitrators have ruled that Austria must return five paintings by Gustav Klimt that were stolen by Nazis from a Jew almost 70 years ago but still hang in the Austrian National Gallery (ANG). The ruling is binding and cannot be appealed. The decision has sparked a raging debate in Vienna over whether the nation should seek to purchase the paintings at market value, as national treasures. On 20 January, the paintings were removed from display, after an Austrian who opposed such a purchase threatened to destroy them.

The ruling ends a long battle to reclaim the art that began in 1998, when the heirs of the original owner, Viennese Jewish sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, first learned that there might be evidence undermining Austria’s claim to own the five Klimt paintings. The case is not only the largest successful claim to recover Nazi-looted art, but one that has dismayed many observers with allegations of staunch Austrian recalcitrance in refusing to return wrongly obtained art.

The five paintings are valued at $200 million or more. Among them is the world-famous “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, which if auctioned today could become the most expensive painting ever sold. The gold portrait features Ferdinand’s willowy wife Adele, who is rumoured to have been Klimt’s mistress.

Maria Altmann, Ferdinand’s 89-year old niece and partial heir, who led the eight-year legal battle, said the result was “fabulous. Morally, this is a gain for Austria,” she told The Art Newspaper, in a telephone interview from her California home. “I’m very grateful to the arbitrators. Justice is done.” She and Ferdinand’s four other heirs, who are still absorbing the impact of the victory, will weigh their options as to what to do with the paintings.

In March 1938, when Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich, the five Klimt paintings hung in Ferdinand’s lavish villa at Elisabethstrasse 18 in Vienna, where Ms Altmann and her siblings lunched on Sundays surrounded by fine porcelain, furniture, tapestries and art. The Nazis claimed the villa and the sugar factory Ferdinand directed, and stole the art. Ferdinand escaped to Switzerland, and died there having recovered nothing. Maria fled to the United States.

The five paintings eventually arrived at the ANG by various routes, all having passed through the hands of a Nazi lawyer, Mr Führer.

Ms Altmann has alleged that the paintings were wrongfully taken three times: once by the Nazis, and twice by Austria.

US federal courts agreed with her claim that Austria’s requirement that the paintings be given to the ANG after the war, in exchange for export permits which Ferdinand’s heirs sought so that they could remove other art from the country, was a wrongful violation of international law, if Ms Altmann could prove her facts.

Austria’s second wrong, Ms Altmann said, was its insistence that Adele Bloch-Bauer had given the five paintings to the ANG in her will, when she died unexpectedly of meningitis in 1925.

In 1998, articles by the Czech journalist Hubertus Czernin first revealed that “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” had come to the ANG not from Adele, but from Mr Führer, with a letter signed “Heil Hitler”. Further research led Ms Altmann to believe that Adele had not given the paintings to the ANG in her will, and did not even own them.

In 1998, Austria enacted a law requiring Austrian federal museums to return art that was acquired through forced “donations” from persons seeking export permits for other art they owned. The 1998 law also required the return of Nazi-looted art that had not been restituted. Hundreds of works of art were returned under the new law, including to the Austrian Rothschild family. But in 1999, Ms Altmann’s claim for the Klimt paintings to the Austrian Art Advisory Board was rejected.

A US citizen, she then brought suit in California in 2000. The case took on David and Goliath proportions as Austria raised multiple defences and hired a major US law firm, Proskauer Rose LLP, to challenge E. Randol Schoenberg, Ms Altmann’s lawyer from a two-partner firm in Los Angeles, Burris & Schoenberg LLP.

In 2004, the US Supreme Court rejected Austria’s claim of immunity as a sovereign nation, and the case went forward. Facing trial in November 2005, Austria agreed to arbitration.

The arbitrators’ ruling, dated 15 January, held that all required elements under Austria’s 1998 restitution law had been met, and the paintings must be returned. In the proceeding, Austria argued that Adele Bloch-Bauer owned the paintings, and that her will created a binding bequest to the ANG.

But the arbitrators ruled that Adele’s will stated merely a “non-binding wish” that Ferdinand would leave the five paintings to the ANG, which he never did.

In an example of the lengths Austria has taken in the case, it argued that Ferdinand had falsely declared to the probate court after Adele’s death that he owned all the paintings, in an attempt to deflect public speculation about his wife’s affair with Klimt. But the arbitrators called Austria’s theory “far-fetched”, noting that the probate court statement would not have been made public. The court added that because of inconclusive evidence, Austrian law would deem the paintings to be Ferdinand’s.

The arbitrators then concluded that although the ANG had obtained title to the five paintings through a 1948 acknowledgment of ownership by Ferdinand’s heirs, the acknowledgment had been given under the pressure of seeking export permits for the family’s other art. This brought the Klimt paintings squarely within the 1998 act requiring the return of “donations” made to Austrian museums under such forced circumstances, the arbitrators said.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Morally, this is a gain for Austria” not a loss, says Maria Altmann