Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Golden Year

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Jim Altmann fell asleep on a recent night thinking about his mother's victorious claim that she - not the Austrian government - was the rightful owner of five Gustav Klimt paintings worth about $300 million.

He dreamed his family was sitting in the living room of his mother's Los Angeles home when the doorbell rang. It was UPS. They had the paintings.

"I called my mom and told her about the dream," said Altmann, 50, of Agoura Hills. "And she said, 'You're not too far off. They're going to ship them to the L.A. County Museum of Art."'

The Klimt paintings that Maria Altmann knew as an Austrian girl left Vienna this week for Los Angeles, where her family found refuge after escaping the Nazis almost 70 years ago.

But the paintings are not the kind to be hung above the mantle. On April 4, they will be exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where they will remain through June.

"Eventually, they will be sold to museums or the appropriate people so they can be seen," said Altmann, the 90-year-old "Klimt Warrior," as her sons call her, who sued Austria on behalf of herself and four other heirs.

The paintings are believed to be the largest restitution ever ordered in a Nazi-looting case. They include the 1907 gold portrait of Altmann's aunt known as "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," which is valued at $120 million and is considered one of Klimt's two best pieces.

LACMA, which asked to hold the exhibition, is working with Altmann and the other four heirs to keep the paintings on "permanent display," said Stephanie Barron, the museum's senior curator of modern art.

"We can hope," Barron said. "There are a lot of very wealthy people in Los Angeles."

Klimt, who was born in Vienna in 1862 and died in 1918, was a personal friend of Altmann's aunt and uncle, the Bloch-Bauers. They were one of three families who owned most of his paintings.

Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer were part of Austria's wealthy Jewish community during the early 20th century. He was a sugar magnate, she a Social Democrat who mingled with leftist politicians, artists and intellectuals.

They couldn't have children. Their wealth was willed to two nieces and a nephew. Altmann is the only one still living.

When Adele Bloch-Bauer died in 1924, she left all her property to her husband but asked him to bequeath their art collection to the Austrian National Gallery at the Belvedere Palace.

Before he died, though, Nazis seized the Bloch-Bauer possessions and property, including the Klimt paintings, which had hung in Adele's bedroom as a memorial.

The paintings became a source of pride for Austria. One of the country's most important artists, Klimt's work is erotic and suggestive, distinguished by gold backgrounds and mosaic patterns. He was known to spend a year or more on some pieces.

"The paintings give us a sense of the power of art at the turn of the century in Vienna," Barron said. "They are glorious, intimate, psychological and astonishingly beautiful paintings that transport us to another time and place."

Altmann, the daughter of a lawyer, had grown up with maids, cooks and a butler. But she was largely unaware of their wealth.

In 1938, Altmann's father died naturally and her husband, Fritz, was placed in a concentration camp. When the paintings were stolen later that year, Altmann said, "I couldn't have cared less."

Eventually, Fritz escaped. He and his wife fled, settling in Los Angeles in 1942. They began socializing with other Austrian Jewish refugees and put together a familiar life in an unfamiliar land.

Fritz worked for his brother's cashmere sweater company; Maria ran a Beverly Hills women's boutique. But they didn't live like the Bloch-Bauers had.

"When I was a little boy, my mom showed me a reproduction of this painting," Jim Altmann, the youngest of four, said about the gold portrait. "My mom said, 'If my aunt would have left us this painting, our lives would have been totally different."'

Thirty years ago, Altmann moved into a simple one-story house on a quiet street with a coastal breeze. Her Cheviot Hills backyard is quintessential Los Angeles: a pool and a view of the Pacific. The interior is decorated with antique statues and paintings. But there is no place for a real Klimt; besides, Altmann already has that "Adele I" lithograph - not to mention the portrait's place on wrapping paper and a coffee mug, which Altmann finds "tasteless."

Klimt was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg, the famous composer and grandfather of E. Randol Schoenberg. Altmann was a close friend of the younger Schoenberg's maternal grandmother and has always seen him as family.

"Randy" was 32 when she called him with hopes his mother could provide legal advice in recovering the Klimt paintings. It was 1998 and Austria was considering - and eventually passed - a law that required the National Gallery to return any donations made in exchange for having other property seized by the Nazis returned.

Schoenberg's parents were vacationing in Vienna and the young lawyer quickly found himself taking on the case. It was all-consuming.

"My night job was a lot more fun," he said of the unbilled time he spent on the Klimt case. "It was the kind of thing you could talk about at cocktail parties and everybody would be interested."

All his client ever wanted was for the Austrian government to acknowledge that the paintings still belonged to her family, Altmann said. She made a plea for an apology as late as during a 1998 meeting with Austrian officials in Vienna. When they walked, she sued.

The case went through the courts until reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2004. When the court ruled that Altmann could sue Austria, Schoenberg suggested they instead have the case decided by three Austrian arbitrators. He didn't want a U.S. court to issue a rule in their favor and have the Austrian government balk.

"We really were looking at an endless and hopeless procedure in the U.S. until the Austrian government agreed to the arbitration," said Schoenberg, who attended Harvard-Westlake when it was Harvard School.

Now 39, he's argued before the U.S. Supreme Court (winning the rare right to sue a foreign country), he's won an unprecedented case (proving that five national treasures didn't belong to that nation) and he's secured himself a seemingly large reward (though he and Altmann declined to discuss the specifics).

"It turned out my night job was actually much better than my day job. Who knew it?" Schoenberg said. "Everybody just thought I was nuts."