- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004


The Supreme Court considered yesterday whether to allow a lawsuit by an elderly Los Angeles woman seeking to recover more than $150 million worth of paintings she says were stolen by the Nazis from her relatives more than 65 years ago.

Justices have been asked to let Maria Altmann pursue her lawsuit. The government of Austria, which has the art, is trying to block the suit in a California court.

Bush administration lawyer Thomas Hungar said America’s foreign relations would be disrupted if countries like Austria and Japan are put through costly legal fights in U.S. courts.

If Mrs. Altmann wins, she could resume her lawsuit to recover six Gustav Klimt paintings, including two impressionistic portraits of her aunt. They are now part of the Austrian Gallery’s Klimt collection.

Scott P. Cooper of Los Angeles, a lawyer representing Austria, said that country has long thought it was shielded from lawsuits in the United States over expropriated art and other things.

“I don’t know that we protect expectations of the sort you’re talking about,” Justice Antonin Scalia told him.

A victory for the 88-year-old Mrs. Altmann, critics say, could lead to lawsuits in American courts against galleries worldwide and would revive old allegations of government misconduct.

Two other cases involving similar issues already are pending at the Supreme Court: appeals that involve a lawsuit against Japan by women who claim they were used as sex slaves during World War II and a lawsuit by Holocaust survivors and heirs against the French national railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of two Jewish members of the high court, said he could envision “a pretty big nightmare” if courts were thrown open to multiple old-property disputes.

The question for the court is whether to allow lawsuits over disputes predating a 1952 U.S. government policy that shielded some countries from lawsuits.

Mrs. Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, died in 1925 after asking that the art be donated to the government gallery. Her uncle died in exile in Switzerland at the end of World War II and left his possessions to Altmann and two of her siblings. Only Mrs. Altmann is still alive.

Austria argues that it rightfully owns the paintings. It says a member of Mrs. Altmann’s family gave the Klimt paintings to the museum, as her aunt had requested in her will. Mrs. Altmann’s attorneys contend the will was invalid.

The Bush administration supports Austria. Solicitor General Theodore Olson told justices in a filing that “the United States has strongly condemned the Nazi atrocities, and it has sought to rectify Nazi wrongs through diplomatic and other means.”

The government has not, however, authorized U.S. courts to resolve war-related claims, he said.

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