Workers at Vienna's Belvedere Gallery took down five Gustav Klimt paintings Monday and packed them for return to a California woman who says the Nazis stole them from her family.
An estimated 10,000 people had lined up for hours over the weekend for a final glimpse of the cherished works, which have hung for decades at the gallery in Belvedere Castle and are considered national treasures.
Last month, an arbitration court ruled that the paintings must be returned to Maria Altmann of Beverly Hills.
Austria had hoped to find a way to buy back the paintings, but officials conceded last week they simply could not afford the $300 million price tag for the works.
Gallery director Gerbert Frodl noted with a touch of irony that Monday was the 88th anniversary of Klimt's death. Frodl said the museum's restorers were conducting a routine examination of the paintings to ensure everything was in order before they were to be packed for shipping.
Altmann, 89, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, was one of the heirs of the Jewish family that owned the paintings before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.
Although she waged a seven-year legal battle to recover them, she had also made clear that she preferred the works to remain on public display rather than disappear into a private collection.
Austria's decision to give up the artworks represents the costliest concession since it began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis under a cultural property return law enacted in 1998.
Among the Klimt works is the gold-flecked "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," which has been widely replicated on souvenirs.
The other paintings are a lesser-known Bloch-Bauer portrait as well as "Apfelbaum" ("Apple Tree"), "Buchenwald/Birkenwald ("Beech Forest/Birch Forest) and "Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee" (Houses in Unterach on Attersee Lake").
Altmann is the niece of Bloch-Bauer. After Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, the five 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 the Belvedere gallery was made the formal owner.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said Austria has returned more than 5,000 artworks to their rightful owners in recent years, including 16 other Klimt works restored to Altmann or her relatives.
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