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Jul 2004 Journal

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Landmark judgement on looted art restitution: Ambivalent implications for GSF claimants

The US Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling which opens the way for Americans to sue foreign governments when seeking to reclaim looted art and stolen property, or to receive compensation for war crimes dating back to the 1930s. The court handed down a majority verdict in favour of 88-year-old Los Angeles resident Maria Altman, confirming that she is entitled to take the Austrian government to court in the US for the return of a number of valuable art deco paintings by Gustav Klimt (see Newsround, AJR Journal, May 2004).

Maria Altman's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch, a wealthy Czech sugar merchant, and his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer, were friends and patrons of Klimt. His shimmering, gold 1907 portrait of Adele was among six paintings, today valued at $150 million, which were stolen together with the rest of his fortune by the Nazis within a month of the Anschluss in 1938. Ferdinand fled to Switzerland, where he died virtually penniless in 1945.

Mrs Altmann and her husband escaped from Vienna after she was detained and he imprisoned, reaching the US via Liverpool. Adele had died in 1925, which makes the recovery of the painting of her aunt all the more poignant. It hangs today among eight Klimts prominently displayed in the national Austrian Gallery in Vienna, where they are a major tourist attraction.

The Austrian government, which decided to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, defended its position that the paintings were the property of the state, tracing their provenance back to the 1920s. They received the backing of the US administration, whose lawyer told the court that it would be unprecedented to have US judges resolving lawsuits against foreign countries over expropriated property and argued that this would harm America's diplomatic relationships with those countries.

This unanticipated ruling could open the way for Americans to pursue claims for compensation or restitution against foreign countries on a range of alleged injustices over the past 70 years - France for complicity in transportation to concentration camps, Japanese troops for wartime sex slave victims, and so on.

Of course, the judicial ruling has serious implications for Austrian survivors who have submitted compensation claims to the General Settlement Fund (GSF) brokered by the US government in January 2001. Under the terms of this agreement, no payments in respect of lost assets, properties and other personal wealth will be disbursed unless Austria has secured legal peace. So, survivors could find themselves both supporting Mrs Altman and other potential plaintiffs to insist Austria returns alleged stolen properties, whilst also needing an award from the GSF.
Ronald Channing

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