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Austria to Return Art Stolen by Nazis

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The New York Times 17 January 2006

VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- Austria agreed Tuesday to abide by a court ruling and will give up ownership of five precious Gustav Klimt paintings to a California woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family.

But Culture Minister Elizabeth Gehrer proposed her country be allowed to continue displaying the best-known works as national treasures, although she acknowledged there was not enough money to buy them.

Gehrer said Austria would comply with the arbitration court's decision Monday that the country is obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann under laws mandating the restitution of art objects to Holocaust victims.

Altmann, 89, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, was one of the heirs of the family that owned the paintings before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.

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 least $150 million.

But for Klimt lovers, at least one of the paintings -- ''Adele Bloch-Bauer I'' -- is priceless. Stylistically similar to Klimt's world-renowned ''The Kiss,'' the painting is replicated on T-shirts, cups and other souvenirs.

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 Belvedere gallery was made the formal owner.

Among the possibilities Gehrer raised was approaching the heirs about displaying at least some of the pictures on loan.

Altmann's attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, said early Tuesday that he expected the Austrian government would abide by the court ruling.

''I think it's finally been resolved,'' he said of his client's seven-year battle to get back the paintings. ''It's been a really difficult process.''

Schoenberg has said it was too early to say 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.

Altmann, however, has said the paintings should remain on public display and not in a private collection.

Austria was among the most fervent supporters of Adolf Hitler. Vienna was home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 200,000 before World War II. Today, it numbers about 7,000.

The country has also begun paying compensation to Nazi victims from a $210 million fund endowed by the federal government, the city of Vienna and Austrian industries.

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