Five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis and ordered returned from Austria went on display in Los Angeles Tuesday after a lengthy dispute highlighting the ownership complexities of the world’s great art works.
The paintings, valued at more than $120 million, include a famous golden portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of the original owner of the work. They had been displayed at a Vienna museum since World War II after being seized by the Nazis when Germany annexed Austria in 1938.
After a seven-year legal case, an arbitration court in January ordered the Austrian government to return the five paintings to Los Angeles resident Maria Altmann, the niece and heir of Bloch-Bauer, who fled Nazi-ruled Austria for the United States.
Altmann, 90, originally wanted the paintings to remain in an Austrian museum but authorities said they could not afford to buy them back.
Altmann instead loaned them to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for three months, saying she wanted to thank the city “which provided me a home when I fled the Nazis, and whose courts enabled me to recover my family’s paintings.”
Altmann said her uncle and aunt always wanted to make their collection available to the public but the final destination of the returned Klimts was uncertain and one or more of them may be sold.
Klimt, who died in 1918, was the foremost painter of Art Nouveau in Vienna and his work is considered central to Viennese cultural identity.
The Nazis looted tens of thousands of works of art and despite attempts after the war to restore major items to their rightful owners, many families and European institutions are still seeking missing items, art experts say.
More recently, the ownership of antiquities has become a matter of dispute between the Italian and Greek governments and some of the world’s most prestigious museums.