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Austria halts negotiations for Klimt paintings

Official says government can't afford $300 million pricetag for masterpieces
/ Source: The Associated Press

Austria’s government said Thursday it cannot afford to buy back five Gustav Klimt paintings that a court has ordered returned to a California woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family.

Elisabeth Gehrer, Austria’s minister in charge of education and culture, said the government wanted to acquire the masterpieces but decided it could not afford the $300 million pricetag. Last month, an arbitration court awarded the paintings to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, who says they were looted from her family by the Nazis.

“Therefore the paintings are immediately available for her to inherit,” Gehrer said in statement. She said the government’s Council of Ministers could not find the cash in its budget to keep the paintings in Austria, where they are widely considered to be national treasures.

Gehrer said the government would inform Altmann’s attorneys that it has no more interest in negotiating a purchase.

“We’re simply unable” to buy the paintings, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said. “Further negotiations are pointless.”

Gehrer had proposed after the Jan. 16 court ruling that Austria be allowed to continue displaying at least two of the best-known works as national treasures. Even then, however, she acknowledged that there was not enough money to buy them and Austria was obligated to return them under laws mandating the restitution of art objects to Holocaust victims.

Altmann, 89, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, was one of the heirs of the 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 had also made clear that she preferred the works to remain on public display rather than disappear into a private collection.

Austria’s decision to give up the artworks that have been displayed for decades in Vienna’s ornate Belvedere castle represents the costliest concession since it began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis.

Among the works is “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which is stylistically similar to Klimt’s world-renowned “The Kiss” and has been widely 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 is the 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.

After Bloch-Bauer died, the paintings remained in her family’s possession. Her husband fled to Switzerland after the Nazis took over Austria. The Nazis then took the paintings and the Belvedere gallery was made the formal owner.

Austria was among the most fervent supporters of Adolf Hitler. Vienna was home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 200,000 before World War II; today, it numbers about 7,000.

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