Maria Altmann was an Austrian-American Jewish immigrant who sought safety in America after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. She eventually became a naturalized citizen. Her inspiring life story chronicles her successful fight to retrieve five of her family’s paintings from the Austrian government after they were confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. Altmann’s uncle Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned the paintings, which included two portraits of his wife and were created by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. Altmann attempted to contact the Austrian authorities, but her efforts were met with silence. This compelled her to file a lawsuit against the Austrian government in an Austrian court, but she eventually dropped the case due to the high legal fees. She later filed an FSIA action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, which was eventually dismissed. Following that, an arbitration court chaired by three Austrian judges found in her favor, resulting in the Austrian government returning the artworks to Altmann.
Childhood and Adolescence
Maria Altmann was born Maria Victoria Bloch on February 18, 1916 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, to Gustav Bloch and Marie Therese, a rich Jewish family. Bloch-Bauer became the family’s surname in 1917.
Her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Czech sugar tycoon, and his wife, Adele, were active members of the Vienna Succession movement, which was founded in 1897 with the help of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.
Adele’s beautiful mansion, Altmann recalled, was adorned with tapestries, paintings, a fine china collection, and fashionable furniture. Her aunt was a huge supporter of the arts and even appeared for some of Klimt’s most famous works.
Adele would frequently invite important artistic, political, and social luminaries of the day, including Klimt, in the salon of her opulent residence in Elisabethstrasse.
One of Adele’s guests was Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg, an Austrian painter, composer, and music theorist who was a key member in the Second Viennese School. E Randol Schoenberg, a US attorney and genealogist who took on Altmann’s lawsuit, is the composer’s grandson.
After contracting meningitis, Adele died in 1925.
In 1937, Altmann married opera singer Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann, and on March 12, 1938, Austria was seized by Nazi Germany, a process known as “Anschluss.”
The Nazis seized Adele’s diamond necklace and earrings, which she had received as a wedding gift from her uncle, and the necklace was given to the wife of Nazi chief Hermann Göring.
Furthermore, the Nazis took Ferdinand’s fine china collection, his sugar factory, and all of his art collections, including two portraits of Adele and three Klimt landscapes.
The Nazis imprisoned Altmann’s husband Fredrick at Dachau concentration camp in order to force her brother-in-law Bernhard Altmann, who had relocated to England by that time, to surrender over his thriving textile factory to the Germans.
Following her husband’s release, she and her husband fled their homeland, leaving behind all of their moveable and immovable assets. The couple fled to the United States, first settling in Fall River, Massachusetts, and then in the affluent Cheviot Hills neighborhood of California.
Later the Years
Bernhard sent Altmann a cashmere sweater via mail after she moved to California, along with a message that said, “See what you can accomplish with this.” Cashmere sweaters were not available in the United States at the time, and when she brought it to Kerr’s Department Store in Beverly Hills, it received a lot of attention.
Bernhard’s cashmere sweaters quickly became popular in California and around the United States. Altmann soon became the face of the product, which inspired her to start her own clothing line. Caroline Brown Tracy, the mother of actor Spencer Tracy, was among her clients.
She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1945. Ferdinand, her uncle, died on November 13 of that year. Altmann and two additional nephews and nieces received his estate.
Meanwhile, the Austrian authorities took ownership of the five plundered paintings of Ferdinand. For many years, Altmann assumed that the Austrian National Gallery had the right to keep her family’s Klimt paintings in their custody.
Hubertus Czernin, an Austrian investigative journalist who was the first to gain access to the records of the Austrian Gallery in Vienna, determined that Ferdinand had never donated the Klimt artworks to the state museum, despite Austria’s claims. In 1998, he published a series of essays about the ownership of the five paintings.
The paintings were maintained by the Austrian government due to Adele’s will, in which she requested that Ferdinand leave the artworks to the Austrian State Gallery following his death. However, the question arose as to whether Adele’s desire was legally binding on her husband because Ferdinand was the owner of the paintings and his heirs after him.
After learning of this, Altmann, who was 82 at the time, vowed to return the paintings to her family. She was initially willing to let the Austrian government keep the portraits and only ask for the landscape paintings to be returned to the family in an attempt to negotiate, but when the Austrian authorities did not take her proposal seriously, she attempted to sue the Austrian government in an Austrian court in 1999.
Altmann dismissed the complaint in Austria because the filing fee, which is calculated as a percentage of the recoverable amount of the property in question under Austrian law, was almost $1.5 million, even after it was reduced by Austrian courts to $350,000.
In 2000, she filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which became known as ‘Republic of Austria v. Altmann.’
The Supreme Court of the United States determined in 2004 that Austria was not free from such obligations. As a result of this rule, an arbitration panel comprised of three Austrian judges was constituted.
The tribunal likewise found in favor of Altmann on January 16, 2006, stating that Austria is required by law to release such paintings to her and other heirs. In March of that year, Austria restored the artworks to the heirs. In terms of money, this was the largest single return of Nazi-looted artwork in Austria.
The paintings were on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until June 30, 2006, after which Altmann sent them to Christie’s in London.
Ronald Lauder, an American businessman, philanthropist, art collector, and political activist, paid $135 million for the painting ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ (1907), the most ever paid for an artwork.
In November 2006, the artwork ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer II’ (1912) was sold for about $88 million. The revenues from the sale of all five artworks totaled roughly $325 million, which was split among the heirs.
A portion of the revenues went to the ‘Maria Altmann Family Foundation,’ which supports a number of philanthropic and public organisations.
Personal History and Legacy
Maria Altmann died on February 7, 2011, at her Cheviot Hills home, after losing her husband in 1994.
Her story was told in three documentaries: “The Rape of Europa” (2006), “Stealing Klimt” (2007), and “Adele’s Wish” (2008), as well as Anne-Marie O’Connor’s book “The Lady in Gold, the Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.”
Tatiana Maslany and Helen Mirren portrayed her younger and elder selves, respectively, in the biographical film ‘Woman in Gold’ (2015). The movie was a financial success.
Estimated Net Worth
The estimated Net Worth of Maria Altmann is about $135 Million.