Austria to Return to Heir Artwork Stolen by Nazis

VIENNA -- Austria will honor an arbitration court decision and give five precious Gustav Klimt paintings to a California woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family, a government minister said Tuesday.

Culture Minister Elizabeth Gehrer made the announcement following Monday's court ruling that the country is obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann.

Altmann, 89, was one of the heirs of the family who owned the paintings before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.

A brief statement from Gehrer provided no details. But the Austrian government had said previously that it would honor any ruling by the court, whose decision was made public Monday.

Altmann said she was awakened by a telephone call from her attorney Monday morning with the good news.

"I tell you, frankly, I had a very good feeling the last few days. I had a very positive feeling thinking things will go all right," said Altmann, reached by telephone at her home in Los Angeles. "I'm thrilled that it came to this end."

Austria's decision to give up the artworks that have been displayed for decades in Vienna's ornate Belvedere castle represents the costliest concession since it began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis.

The paintings' estimated worth is at $150 million. But for Klimt lovers, at least one of the disputed paintings -- the oil and gold-encrusted portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" -- is priceless.

Altmann is the niece of Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925. The subject's family commissioned her famous portrait and owned it, along with the four other Klimt paintings disputed in the case.

After Bloch-Bauer died, the paintings remained in her family's possession. Her husband fled to Switzerland after the Nazis took over Austria. The Nazis then took the paintings and a gallery in the Belvedere was made the formal owner.

Jane Kallir, co-director of New York City's Galerie St. Etienne, which introduced Klimt to the United States in 1959, called the 1907 portrait "literally priceless." Stylistically similar to Klimt's world-renowned "The Kiss," the painting is replicated on T-shirts, cups and other souvenirs.

Austria considers the paintings part of its national heritage. Klimt 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.

Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said it was too early to say exactly what would happen to the paintings in light of the court's ruling. Altmann has four siblings who are also heirs with claims to the artwork, he said Monday. Still, Altmann suggested she was ready to compromise, telling state broadcaster ORF late Monday that she wanted the famed portrait and a lesser-known one of her aunt to stay in Austria. She did not elaborate.

The case stemmed from a 1998 Austrian law that required federal museums to review their holdings for any works seized by the Nazis and determine whether they were obtained without remuneration.