Searching for the Woman in Gold: The Legal Battle for Klimt’s Stolen Painting

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Mainstream knowledge of Gustav Klimt’s work has persisted through the decades, but what about his paintings? As it turns out, many of them have also survived—just not with their rightful owners.

Klimt’s gold-embellished painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) was one work among several that were first commissioned by a wealthy Jewish family, headed by Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer, only to be plundered during the Nazi regime. While one of the couple’s heirs would later make legal efforts to reclaim it, the painting would remain in the wrong hands for over half a century.

The legal battle to retrieve “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, also known as “Woman in Gold,” began in 1998. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had died in 1945, leaving part of his estate to his niece Maria Altmann. She faced a decades-long precedent of neglect by the Austrian government, which had long resisted restitution efforts made by other members of the public. Those shunned in their attempts to retrieve stolen assets and art worked to expose the government, museum officials, and art dealers that stood in their way.

Increasing media coverage and public outcry motivated several governments to make a change. When Austria signed a nonbinding agreement titled the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of 1998, it led to the passing of a law that required museums to open their archives and return looted property. One journalist found previously sealed evidence that the Austrian Gallery held a faulty claim to the Bloch-Bauer Klimts. This evidence ran counter to Austria’s claim that Ms. Bloch-Bauer had left the portrait to the country in her will after she passed away in 1925.

The new Austrian restitution panel denied Altmann’s initial claim. In 2006 the United States Supreme Court paved the way for Altmann to sue the Austrian government with the legal guidance of her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg. The lawyer’s indirect relationship with the heiress, who was best friends with his grandmother, influenced his approach to the claim, along with his personal passion for family histories. He combined the legal aspects of the case with the story’s underlying sympathetic tones. Schoenberg and Altmann eventually reached an agreement with the Austrian government in binding arbitration.

Altmann was ultimately awarded five of the six paintings that had been taken from her family. Its location in a federal museum, says Schoenberg, was critical in reclaiming the portrait. More than 100,000 stolen works of art are still unaccounted for today, due in part to the fact that many missing works have ended up with private owners. While their legal victory was several decades in the making, Schoenberg stresses that every success gives people more hope that restitution efforts can continue.