The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that U.S. courts can hear the case of an 88-year-old Jewish refugee seeking to recover $130 million worth of art in Austria's national art museum -- art she says was looted from her family by the Nazis more than half a century ago.
By a vote of 6 to 3, the court said Maria Altmann's case is permitted under a 1976 federal law that bars suits in U.S. court against foreign governments, except in cases of alleged illegal property expropriations. The law was meant to apply retroactively, the court concluded, and that includes the period before, during and just after World War II.
"[T]he act . . . clearly applies to conduct, like [Austria's] alleged wrongdoing, that occurred prior to 1976, and, for that matter, prior to 1952," when the State Department announced that the usual immunity of foreign governments did not extend to cases of illegal property expropriations, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion.
The result may make it easier for groups and individuals pressing World War II-era compensation claims against not only Austria, but also countries such as Mexico, France and Japan, to get their cases heard in what they hope will be the relatively favorable forum of a U.S. federal court.
"Maria is very gratified," said E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann's attorney. "She said that justice prevailed, and she hopes that justice will prevail as we go forward."
A spokesman for the Austrian Embassy, Christoph Meran, said Austria was "surprised" but was still studying the ruling and could not comment further.
By extending opportunities for litigation, Altmann's victory may create difficulties for other aging property claimants who opted not to sue Austria. A multimillion-dollar settlement negotiated between the Clinton administration and Austria is contingent on the dismissal of all World War II-era lawsuits in U.S. courts.
About $210 million in compensation to at least 2,000 claimants will remain on hold until the conclusion of a separate class-action suit against Austria in New York, according to Stuart E. Eizenstat, who led the U.S. negotiation team in the settlement talks.
"While this result [yesterday] may be good for Mrs. Altmann, it may not be good for thousands of other victims," Eizenstat said.
Altmann's suit tells a tale of dispossession and deception, and Stevens went over her allegations in some detail in his opinion.
Altmann, who escaped from Vienna before the war and now lives in California, seeks six Gustav Klimt paintings that once belonged to her aunt and uncle, Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. Most of them have been in the state-run Austrian Gallery since the Nazis took over Austria in 1938.
Austria argues that it legally possesses the Klimts because Adele Bloch-Bauer, shortly before her death in 1925, wrote a will asking Ferdinand, an industrialist and art collector, to give the paintings to the Austrian Gallery upon his death. In 1925, he said he would comply.
Altmann herself accepted this until 1998, when the Austrian media reported previously hidden facts about the paintings' history.
While Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was in exile, Nazi lawyers seized the paintings. In 1941, a Nazi lawyer awarded the Klimts to the gallery in a letter signed, "Heil Hitler." That same year, Ferdinand wrote a letter expressing frustration that the paintings had been lost.
Ferdinand rewrote his will before he died, in 1945. It awarded all of his property to his brother's children, including Altmann.
After the war, a new Austrian government promised restitution to Jews. But in 1948, Austrian officials induced a Bloch-Bauer family lawyer to sign over the Klimts to the gallery in exchange for the release of their other property -- a transaction of the kind Austria has since declared unenforceable.
In dissent yesterday, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, echoed Bush administration concerns, saying the ruling "injects great prospective uncertainty into our relations with foreign sovereigns."
The case is Austria v. Altmann, No. 03-13.