Republic of Austria v. Altmann
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act applies retroactively. It is one of the most recent cases that deals with the "anti-retroactivity doctrine", which is a doctrine that holds that courts should not construe a statute to apply retroactively (to apply to situations that arose before it was enacted) unless there is a clear statutory intent that it would do so. This means that, regarding lawsuits filed after its enactment, the FSIA standards of sovereign immunity and its exceptions apply even to conduct that took place before 1976.
The result of this case for the plaintiff, Maria Altmann, was that she was authorized to proceed with a civil action against Austria in a U.S. federal district court for recovery of a painting stolen by the Nazis and then housed in a government museum. As the Supreme Court noted in its decision, Altmann had already tried suing the museum before in Austria, but was forced to voluntarily dismiss her case because of Austria's rule that court costs are proportional to the amount in controversy (in this case, the enormous monetary value of the painting). That is, just to file her complaint in an Austrian court, she would have had to pay a filing fee of $135,000 (an outrageous requirement when measured by American standards of due process). Although Altmann's forum shopping was quite transparent, Justice Stephen Breyer, in his concurring opinion, emphasized that the Court was dealing purely with the FSIA retroactivity issue and not with "any legal determination about the merits of Austrian legal procedures."
Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of two of the paintings, had written in her last will: "Meine 2 Porträts und 4 Landschaften von Gustav Klimt, bitte ich meinen Ehegatten nach seinem Tode der österr. Staats-Galerie in Wien zu hinterlassen" - I ask my husband to bequeath my 2 portraits and the 4 landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian state gallery in Vienna after his death. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer signed a statement acknowledging Adele's wish in her last will. He also donated one of the paintings to Belvedere Gallery in Vienna in 1936. However, in a controversial ruling, the Austrian Supreme Court determined that Adele was probably never the legal owner of the paintings. Rather, it viewed it as more likely that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was their legal owner and that in turn Altmann was the rightful heir of Ferdinand's estate.
The ruling in favor of Maria Altmann came as a great shock to the Austrian public and the government. The loss of the paintings was regarded in Austria as a loss of national treasure. The Austrian government received wide criticism from the opposition parties for its failure to secure a deal with Maria Altmann at an earlier stage. Maria Altmann told the government that the time was up and there would be no deal from her side anymore. She had attempted earlier to come to some mutual agreement in the 1990s, however the government kept on ignoring her offers and her letter. The Austrian government declined to accept a condition of the arbitration which would have allowed it preferentially to purchase the paintings at an attested market price. The paintings left Austria in March 2006 and were flown to Los Angeles. There were various attempts by Austrians to buy at least some of the works back.
Just months after the Austrian government finally returned Ms. Altmann's family's heirlooms to her, she consigned the Klimts to the auction house Christie's, to be sold on her behalf. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I sold for $135 million, and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II for $88 million, with the five paintings fetching a total of over $327 million.
Maria Altmann's story has been recounted in two 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 subect of the documentary Stealing Klimt, which was released 2007. That movie also featured interviews with Altmann and others who were closely involved with the story.
- Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 541
- List of United States Supreme Court cases
- National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism
- E. Randol Schoenberg
- Maria Altmann