NEW YORK—After winning a protracted legal battle with the Austrian government, Maria Altmann is certain of one thing: Although her family is entitled to recover five paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), “I am not going to hang them in my house,” she told ARTnewsletter.
A three-member Austrian arbitration panel recently determined that the Klimt images, currently in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, belong to the descendants of Czech-Austrian sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.
“The paintings will be returned to the legitimate heirs just as recommended by the arbitration court,” Austria’s culture minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, told the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ÖRF). (Arrangements for their transfer had not been made as ARTnewsletter went to press.)
The paintings, which have a total estimated value of about $200 million, are Beechwood, 1903; Apple Tree I, 1911–12; Houses in Unterach am Attersee, circa 1916; and two portraits of Altmann’s aunt—Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, and Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912. Considered Austrian national treasures, the works, particularly the oil-and-gold portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I, are popular and have been widely reproduced.
Austria is not in a position to buy the paintings, Gehrer maintains. “If one reads in the newspapers that, alone, €70/120 million have been set or talked about for the ‘golden Adele,’ one simply has to look at it very realistically,” she told ÖRF. “The entire budget of all of the federal museums in Austria equals €70 million ($85 million).”
Gehrer reopened Austria’s postwar restitution program in 1998 after Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau subpoenaed two Egon Schiele works that were on loan to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from Austria’s Leopold Museum. The heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray, a Jewish gallery owner forced to surrender the paintings before fleeing from the Nazis in 1938, had requested that they be detained until ownership could be resolved.
Paving the Way for Restitution
Gehrer subsequently established the Commission for Provenance Research, whose work was the basis for a 1998 law that allowed the restitution of Nazi-era art in Austrian federal museums. The first prominent beneficiary of the law was Baroness Bettina Looram Rothschild, who in 1999 recovered from museums in Vienna more than 250 Old Master paintings and pieces of furniture that her parents, Alphonse and Clarice Rothschild, had left behind when they escaped from Austria in 1938.
In 1999 Gehrer and the Austrian Art Advisory Board declined to return the Klimt paintings to Altmann under terms of the 1998 law. The board argued that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s wife, Adele, who died in 1925, had bequeathed the paintings to Austria in her 1923 will. Altmann, a refugee from Vienna who lives in Los Angeles, contended that her aunt Adele was not the rightful owner of the works—and that the will contained not a bequest but a request that her husband leave the works to the state.
Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer left Austria in 1938, and his assets were expropriated. He died in exile in Switzerland in 1945, leaving his entire estate to Altmann and her brother and sister. Altmann, the sole surviving named heir, says she will decide, together with her siblings’ three children, what to do with the works.
In 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann could sue the Republic of Austria in the U.S. to pursue her claim for the paintings. Last May, Altmann and the Austrian government agreed that an Austrian arbitration panel would determine the fate of the paintings, and that the ruling would be final.
E. Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles attorney who represents Altmann, told ARTnewsletter: “You have to credit Austria, especially Minister Gehrer and her government, for proposing the law in the first place. She did the absolute right thing in passing this law, which has to go to her credit— but then she did not follow her own law. Thank goodness, we got to the position where we were essentially forcing the Austrian government to comply with its own law, as crazy as that sounds.”
Altmann, 90, says she was never discouraged during her seven-year quest. “I felt the whole time that the law, that justice, was on my side,” she says. “I was hoping to live to see this happen.”