Feb 6, 9:44 AM EST
Vienna museum returning stolen art
By WILLIAM J. KOLE
Associated Press Writer
VIENNA, Austria (AP) — Vienna's Belvedere Gallery took down five Gustav Klimt paintings Monday and packed them for return to a California woman whose family owned the works when they were stolen by the Nazis.
About 10,000 people had lined up for hours over the weekend for a final glimpse of the cherished paintings, 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 could not afford the $300 million price tag.
Austria's decision to give up the artworks represents the costliest concession since it began returning valuable art objects looted by the Nazis. The cultural property return law was enacted in 1998.
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 packed for shipping.
Altmann, 89, a retired 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 also made clear that she preferred the works to remain on public display rather than disappear into a private collection.
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 Bloch-Bauer's niece. The five paintings remained in her family's possession after Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, but the Nazis seized them when they took over Austria and Altmann's husband fled to Switzerland. The Belvedere gallery was made the formal owner.
Austria was among the most fervent supporters of Adolf Hitler. Vienna was home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 200,000 before World War II; today, it numbers about 7,000.
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.
The country also has begun paying compensation to Nazi victims from a $210 million fund endowed by the federal government, the city of Vienna and Austrian industries.
The Netherlands also is deciding whether to give a major art collection to the descendants of a Jewish art dealer whose holdings also were taken by the Nazis, a family spokesman has said.
Jacques Goudstikker, the Netherlands' biggest art dealer before World War II, fled the country at the start of the war with his wife and son, losing an estimated 1,300 artworks. He died after falling through a trap door on a ship heading to South America.
About 800 of his artworks were seized by Hitler's right-hand man, Field Marshall Hermann Goering, and 300, mostly by Dutch artists, were returned to the Netherlands' government after the war.
A few were sold at auction, but 267 artworks worth tens of millions of dollars - including masterpieces by Jan Steen and Salomon van Ruysdael - remain in museums around the Netherlands, including the national Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Some decorate Dutch government offices and overseas embassies.
Others works that Goering took—including pieces by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, Rubens, Brueghel, Titian and Tintoretto—remain lost. A handful have been returned by buyers who later realized the paintings were Goudstikker's.