Maria Altmann  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Maria Altmann (February 18, 1916 – February 7, 2011) was a Jewish refugee of Nazi Austria, who lived in the Netherlands briefly before moving to California. Her ultimately successful attempts to regain five Gustav Klimt paintings owned by her family that had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II made international headlines more than five decades after the war's end, and involved the courts of two nations.



Born as Maria Bloch-Bauer, in Vienna, she married Fritz Altmann in 1937. Fritz Altman was arrested in Vienna in 1938 and held hostage at the Dachau concentration camp to force his brother Bernhard, by then safely in France, to transfer the Bernhard Altmann textile factory into German hands. Fritz was released and the couple fled to America via England in 1940, leaving behind most of their property, including jewelry that later found its way into the hands of Hermann Göring. Maria was naturalized an American citizen in 1945; the couple had four children. Maria Altmann was a niece of Czech sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch, who owned a small collection of artwork by the Austrian master Gustav Klimt, including two portraits of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. During the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, these paintings were looted. Bloch died in 1946, soon after World War II, leaving his estate to a nephew and two nieces, including Altmann. By this time, after the paintings had changed hands a number of times, five of these paintings were in the possession of the Austrian government.

In 1999 she sued the government of Austria in an Austrian court. Under Austrian law, the filing fee for such a lawsuit is determined as a percentage of the recoverable amount. At the time, the five paintings were estimated to be worth approximately US$135 million, making the filing fee over US$1.5 million. The courts later reduced this amount to $350,000, however this was still considered too costly, and Altmann dropped the case.

In 2000 she filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The case, Republic of Austria v. Altmann, ended up in the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 2004 that Austria was not immune from such a lawsuit. After this decision, Altmann and Austria entered non-binding arbitration. On 16 January 2006, the arbitration court ruled that Austria is legally required to return the art to Altmann. Because both sides agreed to abide by the ruling of the arbitrator, Austria has returned the works.

The paintings were estimated to be collectively worth at least US$150 million when returned. In monetary terms it represents the largest single return of Nazi-looted art in Austria. The paintings left Austria in March 2006 and were on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until June 30, 2006. There were attempts by Austrians to buy some of the works back. Just months after the Austrian government finally returned Ms. Altmann's family's heirlooms to her, she consigned the Klimt paintings to the auction house Christie's, to be sold on her behalf.

The sale of the painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) to cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder for $135 million was at the time the highest sum ever paid for a painting. The painting has been on display in Lauder's New York City Neue Galerie since July 13, 2006. Originally the four additional works by Klimt were included in the exhibition.

However, in November 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was sold at auction at Christie's in New York fetching almost $88m. In total the four remaining paintings sold for $192.7 million and the proceeds were divided up among several heirs.

Some factions of the art world called Ms. Altmann's decision to sell all of the restituted paintings greedy. New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman accused her of "cashing in," and thus transforming a "story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust" into "yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market." Kimmelman argued that the family should give the works away, perhaps giving them to public institutions.

Restitution of Share Certificates

Maria Altmann's family owned share certificates of the Österreichischen Zuckerindustrie AG (Austrian sugar industry) which were held at an unnamed bank based in Zurich. Under pressure by the Nazis the family was forced to sell these shares at a large discount to the investor Clemens Auer. Maria Altmann and other heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer received the largest single restitution amount of US$21.9 million from the plaintiff organizations that distributed the proceeds from the World Jewish Congress lawsuit against Swiss banks which was settled on November 22, 2000.


Altmann's story has been recounted in three documentary films. Adele's Wish by filmmaker Terrence Turner, who is the husband of Altmann's great-niece, was released in 2008. Adele's Wish features interviews with Altmann, her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, and leading experts from around the world. Altmann's story was also the subject of a movie "Stealing Klimt", which was released in 2007. That movie also featured interviews with Altmann and others who were closely involved with the story. The documentary The Rape of Europa, which was about Nazi plunder of European art generally, also included material about Altmann.

See also

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