The release last week of The Woman in Gold, the feature film adaptation of The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as Maria Altmann and her attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, respectively, as well as Tatiana Maslany as the younger Altmann and Daniel Brühl as Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, is an important opportunity to reflect on the legal importance of the case.  Even today, the case provides lessons about the way some victims are still treated, and how one individual can make sure the past is never forgotten.  The looting of Jewish art collections was a concerted effort whose prominence should never be forgotten.  And perhaps even more, it robs those who did survive of the dignity of remembering their family experiences.  Consider: the next time you gather with your extended family, look around the room.  Pick something that you’re accustomed to seeing when the family meets.  Now, imagine it had been stolen or surrendered under duress, and was hanging on the wall of a national collection that denied it had been taken.  How would you feel?  This is the dilemma faced by many claimants, and it is precisely why Altmann matters so much.

The Lady in Gold is quite simply one of my favorite books.  Published in 2012, it traces the story of the creation of one of Gustav Klimt’s famous portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, its seizure by Nazi authorities after the Austrian Anschluss in 1938, and the litigation ten years ago that ultimately led to its restitution and sale at auction, since which it has hung in the Neue Galerie in New York.  O’Connor’s book is so good precisely because of the way it weaves those three eras together: early 20th century Vienna, the Nazi era, and modern times.  She portrays Adele Bloch Bauer and her niece (and the plaintiff in the litigation) Maria Altmann in exquisite detail, complimentary to be sure, but realistic and vivid all the same.  The book also captures the complexities of turn of the century Vienna.  Now the stuff of key chains and other tchotchkes, that era had a far more potent mix of cosmopolitanism, late Empire vainglory, and mainstream political Anti-Semitism than is commonly remembered (particularly compared to Germany).  In no small irony, the Academy of Fine Arts that rejected Hitler is diagonally across a small park from where Altmann lived.

Click here to view image.

Click here to view image.

(My photos of Altmann’s old home under renovation last year, and the nearby Ringstrasse)

Not only that, O’Connor researched and interviewed other parts of the extended family, who had very different views about how to move on from a common tragedy, and I found that perspective both captivating and heartbreaking.  I rarely put the book down until I had finished it.

Adele was the subject of the portrait and the husband of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.  When Adele died in the 1920s, her will expressed the desire that the painting be bequeathed to the Austrian National Gallery.  Ferdinand fled from Austria to Switzerland shortly after the Anschluss, where he died in extremis before the war ended.  By that time, Maria Bloch-Bauer had married Fritz Altmann, and become Maria Altmann.  The Nazis seized Ferdinand’s property, and Maria fled the country.  After the war, the art was retained in the National Gallery at the Belvedere.

In the late 1990s, it came to Altmann’s attention (she has then lived in Los Angeles for decades) that the painting (and several others) were at the Belvedere.  Her requests for its return were denied on the ground that Adele’s will dictated that it be left to the National Gallery.  This was, of course, not true, and particularly absurd given what the government later did to her family.  After efforts at mediation or agreement failed, Altmann’s remaining option in Austria was to file a lawsuit there, but she would have been required to post a bond as a percentage of the value of the property at issue, which in this case would have been tens of millions of dollars and, thus, prohibitive.

So instead she turned to the U.S. courts.  She invoked the “expropriation exception” of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, arguing that since the claim concerned rights in property taken in violation of international law, and since Austria engaged in present-day commercial activity in the United States, Austria was not immune from suit.  This is the principle jurisdictional basis, if it sounds familiar, for my clients’ recent lawsuit against the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz and Germany over title to the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure.

The suit was widely considered to be doomed; the FSIA was passed in 1976 and a threshold question was whether it applied retroactively, that is, to events before its passage.  Many assumed it did not and that the case would be dismissed before it even got started.

But Altmann and Schoenberg persevered, and in 2004 the Supreme Court—over the objection of the United States, no less—ruled that Austria was not immune from suit, and that the case could proceed.  At that point, Austria apparently expressed willingness to arbitrate the claim.  This was a huge risk for Altmann, because an arbitration result cannot ordinarily be appealed, and it would have involved waiving the right to U.S. courts that she had just confirmed.  But she agreed to arbitrate, and she won.  After receiving the painting, Altmann sold it and Ronald Lauder bought it for the Neue Galerie.

Like all restitution cases, the details are gripping.  And all such cases are different, but Altmann is unique in the legal sphere because, quite simply, it changed everything.  At a basic level, it confirmed the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, which has been followed and expanded in the decade since.  In so doing, it changed the stasis that was in place even after the Washington Conference of 1998, putting the world on notice that hushed denials and deflections would not suffice.  It showed that national collections that had pooh-poohed restitution could henceforth only do so at their peril.  And, while hardly a courtroom drama in the A Few Good Men sense, it reflects the commitment of Altmann and Schoenberg to see the job through for the sake of justice.  More than a few museums have put off claimants in the manner that Maria Altmann was ignored—when she was initially far more willing to let Austria keep the painting if it would recognize the truth about its history—and they lived to regret it.

Sadly, too much of the focus since then has been on the ultimate value of the paintings.  This is important for two reasons.  As we have seen, there are malevolent undertones to the coverage of a great deal of Holocaust art restitution cases, that make a thinly-veiled connection between the claims and Jewish heirs seeking money.  Many of the comments that Altmann and O’Connor relate in the book are sadly repeated even today.  This is repugnant and should always be recognized and called out for what it is.

In addition, Schoenberg deserves his kudos and then some.  The case was given little chance of success but he took it, and I take much of the even-now characterizations of him at the time (“young,” “unknown,” etc.) as insulting and more than likely driven by jealousy from others who wish that they’d had his foresight.  Most of us are young and unknown before we do something, but so what?  Schoenberg wrote a recollection of his experience for MSNBC last week.  Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, also wrote an outstanding piece last week in the Wall Street Journal.

So you should read the book, and you should see the movie, and you should marvel at the changes that a determined spirit can bring.