Austria to Give Klimt Paintings to Jewish Owner's Heiress

VIENNA - The Republic of Austria will hand over five priceless paintings by modern master Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) to the heiress of their former Jewish owner, who fled the Nazis in Austria in the late 1930s, according to a decision made by an arbitration panel yesterday.

Both sides agreed in advance to accept the ruling as binding, which means there will be no more appeals.

As a result of the decision, the five paintings - Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Apfelbaum, Buchenwald/Birkenwald, and Haeuser in Unterach am Attersee - will go to heiress Maria Altmann aged 90, who lives in the United States.

Formally, the final decision must still be made by Austrian Education and Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer. Altmann's lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, already said in a phone interview from Los Angeles yesterday that the decision would make the heirs "extremely happy."

The paintings originally were the property of Adele Bloch-Bauer. When she died in 1926, she willed them, with all her other property, to her husband, major sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

In her will was a clause asking her husband to leave the paintings in turn after his death to Austrian museums.

However, at the end of the 1930s, he was forced to flee the Nazis in Austria to Switzerland, where he willed the paintings to his own family before dying in 1946. His closest living relative is his niece Maria Altmann.

Lawyers later argued that in the mid-1920s, Adele Bloch-Bauer could not have known that her family would be persecuted by the Nazis.

The Klimt pictures, including the two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, remained in Austria in post-war decades, and for years have been the centerpiece of the Austrian Gallery at the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna.

The ownership dispute dragged on for years, with court cases in the United States. Finally, to end the stalemate, both sides agreed to the panel in Austria, which would make the final decision.

The Austrian authorities in immediate post-war years often have been accused of blackmailing Nazi victims by holding back their works of art in exchange for allowing them to take other possessions out of the country.