Sunday, October 01, 2006

"A must-read for giving us the first detailed look at how the Klimt deal went down"

That's Lee Rosenbaum's assessment of Tyler Green's story in the current Fortune magazine about Ronald Lauder's purchase of Klimt's "Adele." Lee also wonders about what Tyler calls Austria's "strangest reason" for not returning the painting: "that Adele herself wanted the paintings to be given to Austria upon [her husband] Ferdinand's death." From my reading of the Supreme Court's 2004 decision in the case, it's probably more accurate to say the Austrian position was that Adele had already given it the work prior to its seizure by the Nazis. The Bloch-Bauer heirs conceded that Adele's will (she died in 1925) "asked" her husband "after his death" to bequeath the paintings to Austria. Their complaint in the U.S. action added that the attorney for her estate then advised the Austrian Gallery that the husband "intended to comply" with the request, but that he wasn't legally obligated to do so because he, not his wife, owned them. He died in 1945, in Switzerland, where he had fled from the Nazis, and his will left everything to his niece, Maria Altmann (who was the named plaintiff in the lawsuit), another niece, and a nephew. The Gallery did take the position, as early as 1948, that Adele had bequeathed the paintings to it, after which Ferdinand had merely been "permitted" to retain them during his lifetime. A few years ago a committee of Austrian government officials and art historians concluded that Adele's precatory request had created a binding legal obligation on the part of her husband to donate the paintings to the Gallery upon his death. The Supreme Court's decision didn't at all get into the merits of those claims (which presumably would be decided under Austrian probate law), instead dealing solely with complex issues of sovereign immunity.