Maria Victoria Altmann

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Maria Victoria Altmann (Bloch-Bauer)

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
Death: February 07, 2011 (94)
Los Angeles, CA, United States
Place of Burial: Culver City, Los Angeles County, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Dr. jur. Gustav Bloch-Bauer and Therese "Thedy" Bloch-Bauer
Wife of Fritz (Friedrich) Altmann
Mother of Charles Gustav Altmann; Peter Bernhard Altmann; Private and James Robert Altmann
Sister of Karl (Charles) David Bloch-Bauer; Robert Bentley; Leopold Lionel Garrick Bentley and Baroness Luise Gutmann

Managed by: Randy Schoenberg
Last Updated:

About Maria Victoria Altmann

Maria Altmann (February 18, 1916 – February 7, 2011) was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, noted for her ultimately successful legal campaign to reclaim five family-owned paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt, stolen by the Nazis during World War II, from the Government of Austria.

She was born Maria Victoria Bloch, in Vienna. The family name was changed to Bloch-Bauer the following year.[1] She was a niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish patron of the arts who served as the model for some of Klimt's best-known paintings.

In 1937, Maria married Fredrick ("Fritz") Altmann. Not long after their Paris honeymoon, the 1938 Anschluss incorporated Austria into Nazi Germany. Under the Nazis, Fredrick was arrested in Austria and held hostage at the Dachau concentration camp to force his brother Bernhard, by then safely in France, to transfer the Bernhard Altmann textile factory into German hands. Fredrick was subsequently released and the couple fled for their lives. They made a harrowing escape, leaving behind their home, loved ones and property, including jewelry that later found its way into the collection of Hermann Göring. Many of their friends and relatives were either killed by the Nazis or committed suicide. Traveling by way of Liverpool, England, they reached the United States and settled first in Fall River, Massachusetts, and eventually in Los Angeles, California. She became a naturalized American citizen in 1945.

Background to the Klimt case

Maria's uncle, Czech sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, owned a small collection of artwork by the Austrian master Gustav Klimt, including two portraits of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. In her will, Adele, who died in 1925, well before the rise of the Nazis, had asked her husband to leave the Klimts to the Austrian State Gallery upon his own death; a much-debated point in more recent years has been whether this request should or should not be considered legally binding upon her husband, who was himself the owner of the paintings. In any event, following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 and Ferdinand's flight from Austria, the paintings were looted, initially falling into the hands of a Nazi lawyer. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer died in 1946, soon after World War II, leaving his estate to a nephew and two nieces, including Maria Altmann. By this time, five of these paintings had made their way into the possession of the Austrian government.[2]

With Austria under pressure in the 1990s to re-examine its Nazi past, the Austrian Green Party helped pass a new law in 1998 introducing greater transparency into the hitherto murky process of dealing with the issue of restitution of artworks looted during the Nazi period. Inter alia, by opening the archives of the Ministry of Culture for the first time, the new law enabled the Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin to discover that, contrary to what had been generally assumed, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had never in fact donated the paintings to the state museum.[3]

Poster in Vienna, bidding goodbye to the painting Adele Bloch-Bauer

On learning of Czernin's findings, Altmann at first sought to negotiate with the Austrian government about receiving some of the paintings back. At this stage she asked them only for the Klimt landscapes belonging to her family, and was willing to allow Austria to keep the portraits. Her proposal was not, however, treated seriously by the Austrian authorities, and no common ground was reached. In 1999 she sought to sue the government of Austria in an Austrian court. Under Austrian law, however, the filing fee for such a lawsuit is determined as a percentage of the recoverable amount. At the time, the five paintings were estimated to be worth approximately USD $135 million, making the filing fee over USD $1.5 million. Although the Austrian courts later reduced this amount to $350,000, this was still too much for Altmann, and she dropped her case in the Austrian court system.

In 2000 Altmann filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The case, Republic of Austria v. Altmann, ended up in the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 2004 that Austria was not immune from such a lawsuit. After this decision, Altmann and Austria agreed to binding arbitration by a panel of three Austrian judges.[4] On 16 January 2006, the arbitration panel ruled that Austria was legally required to return the art to Altmann and the other family heirs, and in March of the same year Austria returned the paintings.

The paintings were estimated to be collectively worth at least US $150 million when returned. In monetary terms this represented the largest single return of Nazi-looted art in Austria. The paintings left Austria in March 2006 and were on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until June 30, 2006. Months after the Austrian government returned Altmann's family's belongings, she consigned the Klimt paintings to the auction house Christie's, to be sold on behalf of her family. The sale of the painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for $135 million was at the time the highest sum ever paid for a painting. Since July 13, 2006, the painting has been on public display in the Neue Galerie in New York City, which was established by Lauder in 2001. The four additional works by Klimt were also exhibited at the Neue Gallerie for several weeks in 2006.[5]

In November 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was sold at auction at Christie's in New York fetching almost $88M. In total the four remaining paintings sold for $192.7 million and the proceeds were divided up among several heirs.

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Maria Victoria Altmann's Timeline

February 18, 1916
Vienna, Austria
August 9, 1940
Fall River, MA, United States
February 7, 2011
Age 94
Los Angeles, CA, United States
Culver City, Los Angeles County, California, United States