IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Austria to return famous Klimt paintings

Court rules for Calif. woman whose family lost renowned works to Nazis
/ Source: The Associated Press

Austria said Tuesday it will honor an arbitration court decision and give five precious Gustav Klimt paintings to a California woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family.

Culture Minister Elizabeth Gehrer made the announcement a day after the court ruling that the country is obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann.

Altmann, 89, was one of the heirs of the family who owned the paintings before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.

A brief statement from Gehrer provided no details. But the Austrian government had said previously that it would honor any ruling by the court.

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.

The paintings’ estimated worth is $150 million. But for Klimt lovers, at least one of the disputed paintings — the oil and gold-encrusted portrait “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” — is priceless.

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 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 a gallery in the Belvedere was made the formal owner.

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.

Remaining in Austria?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.

Maria Altmann celebrates with her daughter Margie Crain and other family members at her Los Angeles home Monday, Jan 16, 2006. An Austrian arbitration court determined the country is legally obligated to return Gustav Klimt paintings to Maria Altmann that were stolen by the Nazis, the heir of the family who owned them before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, the Austria Press Agency reported Monday Jan. 16, 2006.Nick Ut / AP

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. Altmann has four siblings who are also heirs with claims to the artwork, he said Monday.

Still, Altmann suggested she was ready to compromise, telling state broadcaster ORF late Monday that she wanted the famed portrait and a lesser known one of her aunt to stay in Austria. She did not elaborate.

“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,” Altmann told The Associated Press by telephone from her Los Angeles home. “I’m thrilled that it came to this end.”

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.

Attorneys for Austria had argued Altmann’s aunt intended to give the works to the Austrian Gallery.

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.