Monday, January 16, 2006

Austria must return 'Nazi-theft' paintings


The Austrian governments should return five paintings by Gustav Klimt to the heir of a Jewish family, a Vienna arbitration court said Monday, indirectly backing the family's claims that the pictures were stolen by the Nazis.

While the ruling was not binding, lawyers for both the family and the government have said they would abide by it to end an 18-year legal struggle over who owns the paintings, estimated to be worth at least $150 million.

A decision to return the paintings would represent one of the costliest settlements since Austria's government started more than a decade ago returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis.

Austrian government officials were not immediately available for comment. But E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer for Maria Altmann, the California woman claiming the paintings, said the decision "matches all of hopes and expectations."

"It will make Mrs. Altmann very happy," he told the Austria Press Agency.
The paintings include a gold leaf-clad portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.

Lawyers for the Austrian government and Altmann, 90, who is Bloch-Bauer's niece, have fought since 1998 to over rights to that and four other paintings -- a lesser-known Bloch-Bauer portrait as well as "Apfelbaum" ("Apple Tree"), "Buchenwald/Birkenwald ("Beech Forest/Birch Forest) and "Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee" (Houses in Unterach on Attersee Lake").

The two sides began mediation in March, following an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision that Altmann could sue the Austrian government.

The case stems from a 1998 law passed in Austria that required federal museums to review their holdings to see if they included works seized by the Nazis after they took over Austria in 1938, and to find out whether the works were obtained by the museums without remuneration.

Schoenberg contended the art work was looted by the Nazis, and as such, U.S. law mandates its return. Attorneys for Austria have argued Altmann's aunt clearly intended to give the works to the Austrian Gallery, where they are now displayed, and, in any case the conflict should be settled in an Austrian court.

The decision is 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.

The nation considers the paintings part of its national identity and Klimt an Austrian icon. He 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.

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

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

The fund was created in 2001 to compensate those stripped of businesses, property, bank accounts and insurance policies under the Third Reich.

Austria was among the most fervent supporters of Adolf Hitler. But recognition of the need for restitution was delayed because for decades history books depicted the country as Nazi Germany's first victim, through annexation in 1938.

Vienna was home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 200,000 before World War II. Today, it numbers about 7,000.