An 87-year-old Los Angeles woman can sue the Austrian government in U.S. courts to recover six Gustav Klimt paintings, now valued at $135 million, that the Nazis stole from her family at the outbreak of World War II, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The unanimous decision by a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit marked the first time that a federal appeals court had ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust claim.
Federal law, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, generally bars lawsuits against foreign governments, although it allows them under certain exceptions. The 9th Circuit said that Maria V. Altmann's case fell under an exception created when rights or property is taken in violation of international law.
"This is a very big deal for my client and it's also an important and in many ways unprecedented ruling," Altmann's attorney, Randol Schoenberg, said.
Scott Cooper, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Austrian government and the state-run Austrian Gallery, where the paintings hang, said his clients were considering an appeal to the Supreme Court. His clients argued that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction and Cooper said the 9th Circuit had gone further than any other court in creating an exception to sovereign immunity.
The six Klimt paintings were owned by Altmann's uncle, Ferdinand Bloch, a Jewish Czech sugar magnate, and included one of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. When she died, she left a will asking that her husband leave them to the Austrian Gallery.