Wed, Jan 18, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Woman wins back priceless paintings pilfered by Nazis


It was a seven-year legal struggle with dazzling stakes -- five precious paintings by Austrian icon Gustav Klimt that a California woman says were stolen from her Jewish family by the Nazis.

Now, a court ruling made public on Monday will likely resolve the high-profile case against Austria's government in her favor.

The Austrian arbitration court determined the country is legally obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann, one of the heirs of the family who owned them before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, the Austria Press Agency reported.

Altmann said she was awakened by a telephone call from her attorney at 7:30am on Monday with the good news.

"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, on the telephone from 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.

That would represent the costliest concession since Austria began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis. The pictures have been estimated to be worth at least US$150 million.

But for lovers of Klimt, at least one of the disputed paintings -- the oil and gold-encrusted portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I -- is priceless. Altmann is the 89-year-old niece of Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925. The subject's family commissioned her famous portrait and owned it, along with the four other Klimt paintings disputed in the case.

Jane Kallir, co-director of New York City's Galerie St. Etienne, which introduced Klimt to the US 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.

Austria considers the paintings part of its national heritage. Klimt was a founder of the Vienna Secession art movement that for many became synonymous with Jugendstil, the German and central European version of Art Nouveau.

Altmann's lawyer contended the paintings were looted by the Nazis, and as such, US law mandates their return.

In an interview six years ago, Altmann described Nazis raiding the family home. She recalled men "stripping me of my engagement ring, taking Aunt Adele's diamond necklace and slipping them into their pockets. And other men, in uniform taking our new car -- pushing it because they couldn't find the keys."

A decision to return the paintings would be painful for Austria, even as it seeks to show it is ready to comply with all serious restitution claims arising from wrongs during the Nazi era.

Aside from art objects, Austria also has returned properties in government possession that were looted by the Nazis.

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

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