Maria Altmann, Who Sought Nazi-Looted Art, Dies

Maria Altmann spent the past 60 years of her life in Los Angeles. The Viennese native had fled the Nazis, and her wealthy family's possessions were looted. But in 2004, Altmann won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed her suit against the Austrian government to recover some of the looted art to go forward.

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When 94-year-old Maria Altmann died on Monday, she left not only grieving relatives and friends, she also left a legal legacy, one that may in the future help families right a decades-long injustice.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has her story.

KAREN GRISBY BATES: Maria Altmann died in Los Angeles, but she was born in Vienna when the city was a flourishing center of the arts. She told NPR in 1998 her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was at the center of it all.

Ms. MARIA ALTMANN: She was a patron of Gustav Klimt who painted her portraits, and she died at age 42. And there was a memorial room in the palais of my uncle, where all the Klimts were, and the house was full of beautiful artwork. So I grew up with that.

BATES: Altmann lived in luxury until the eve of World War II. She fled the Nazis, who commandeered her family's home and all of its possessions, including what's become one of Gustav Klimt's most famous paintings, a Klimt's portrait of her aunt now valued at more than $130 million.

After the war, Altmann visited the painting as it traveled in exhibitions, but despaired of ever having it returned to her family.

Ms. ALTMANN: I had given up all hope and so did my sister and brother who, unfortunately, deceased by now.

BATES: When Austria passed a law in 1998 that allowed heirs to looted estates to press for their belongings to be returned, Altmann tried again. No luck.

Some of Altmann's family possessions have been returned, but the family had had to give up rights to several important paintings in order to get the rest out of the country. The late Hubertus Czernin, an Austrian journalist who wrote about his country's looted art holdings, put it bluntly to NPR in 1998.

(Soundbite of archived NPR broadcast)

Mr. HUBERTUS CZERNIN (Journalist): This was, in my point of view, a classic case of blackmailing. They had no chance and no choice.

BATES: Maria Altmann decided to enlist the help of a young family friend, lawyer Randy Schoenberg.

Mr. RANDY SCHOENBERG (Lawyer; President, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust): It's unusual to find a case this long after the initial taking that is so large and not properly resolved.

BATES: Schoenberg, himself a child of Holocaust survivors and president of L.A.'s Museum of the Holocaust, based this case on 1976 U.S. law that says sovereign entities do not have absolute immunity when they appropriate U.S. citizens' property. And the law was retroactive. Schoenberg took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The next step, he told Altmann, should be arbitration in Vienna.

Mr. SCHOENBERG: And she said, are you crazy? We just went all the way up to the Supreme Court and back. Why would we ever want to go back and have the case decided in Austria? And I said, Maria, if you want the case decided in your lifetime, we have to take this chance and do it.

BATES: To many people's shock, the arbitration panel agreed the painting should be returned.

Michael Bazyler, an expert on Holocaust restitution law at Chapman University Law School, says the Austrians should be given credit for that decision.

Professor MICHAEL BAZYLER (Chapman University Law School): Austria could have just said, so what? We're not going to comply with it. They just complied with it.

BATES: A very satisfied Maria Altmann was present when they arrived.

Ms. ALTMANN: The biggest triumph for me is the chance to admit publicly now how everything that they said was not true.

BATES: The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is on display in a small museum in New York, a city with one of the country's largest Jewish communities.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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