Supreme Court to Hear Austria Appeal on Paintings

Reuters 30 September 2003
James Vicini

Washington (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would decide whether the Austrian government and its national museum can be sued in this country by a Los Angeles woman seeking to recover six paintings she says the Nazis took from her uncle during World War II.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal by the European nation and its Austrian Gallery claiming U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction over the dispute.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2000 in federal court in California by Maria Altmann alleging the wrongful taking of six Gustav Klimt paintings, valued at $135 million. The paintings are housed in the Austrian Gallery.

The six paintings were owned by Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch, a Jewish Czech sugar magnate, and included a portrait of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. When she died in 1925, she left a will requesting that her husband leave the artwork to the Austrian Gallery when he passed away.

The paintings were seized by the Nazis when they invaded Austria in 1938. Bloch, who had supported anti-Nazi efforts before Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, fled Vienna for Switzerland, where he died in 1945.

Bloch, in his will, left everything he owned to his nephew and nieces, including Altmann. His family agreed in 1946 that the paintings belonged to the Austrian government.

Altmann, who fled to California to escape the Nazis and is Ferdinand Bloch's sole surviving heir, claimed in her lawsuit that her family was extorted into signing away their rights to the paintings in 1946 and had been lied to by the Austrian government.

A federal judge in California and then the appeals court ruled U.S. courts do have jurisdiction over the lawsuit.

Federal law, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, generally bars lawsuits against foreign governments, but there are certain exceptions.

The appeals court said the case was covered by an exception because it involved an alleged taking of property in violation of international law.

In its appeal, Austria said a Supreme Court review "is necessary to resolve an important dispute concerning the proper venue over foreign states." It has argued that any lawsuit should be pursued in Austria, not the United States .

Altmann's lawyers urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, allowing the case to proceed so the claims can be decided on the merits during her lifetime. She is 87, they told the court.

The justices, who open their new term next week, will hear arguments in the case early next year, with a decision due by the end of June.
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