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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Austria in talks over 'looted' art
Vienna skyline
Mr Bloch-Bauer was a Vienna businessman
A US appeals court has taken the surprise step of ordering Austria to hold talks with a woman who said the Nazis looted six Klimt paintings belonging to her family, according to reports.

The works of art in question are said to have been stolen from Jewish businessman Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer when Germany invaded Austria in 1938.

Mr Bloch-Bauer commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint two pictures of his wife Adele and bought three other landscapes from the artist.

For many years his heir, 86-year-old Maria Altmann, has argued Austria wrongly claims the rights to paintings which are now housed in the country's national gallery.

The Art Newspaper said she filed a lawsuit with a Californian court, citing Austria and the Austrian National Gallery are wrongfully withholding the art.

International law

Austria said it is immune from a US lawsuit because it is a foreign sovereign and therefore cannot be sued.

It also said that because the events happened before 1952 on home soil, that is where a claim should be settled.

But a US lower federal court agreed with Ms Altmann that the case was covered by international law.

A panel of appeal judges ruled that "mediation could bring a resolution that would serve the parties better than results achieved through litigation".

The case has now been passed on to a mediation unit which is expected to report back every 30 days.

Good faith

The Art Newspaper said it is unclear whether the mediation was designed to resolve who owned the paintings or whether a US court could hold Austria to account.

But because the appeal was based on whether Austria could be sued in the US, legal arguments will be about this.

Austria has indicated that it will comply with the court's order and participate in good faith.

Mrs Altmann's lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, told The Art Newspaper: "There are about a million ways this could be resolved outside the court, but you have to have two willing parties to do that.

"I've always been open to talking about settlement with them. But my client is 86 years old. We can't let this drag on forever."

Exile

One of the arguments relates to the wishes of Mr Bloch-Bauer's wife Adele, who in her will expressed the desire that he should leave the Klimt paintings to Austria's national gallery.

He left behind all his possessions when fleeing the Nazis, including the paintings.

It is said that before he died in exile in 1945 he had revoked his previous wills.

Mr Schoenberg said the Austrian Government's argument "rests on position that the request of Adele Bloch-Bauer's will has the force of a legacy".

See also:

03 Jan 02 | Business
Dutch process Holocaust claims
06 Sep 01 | Arts
'Nazi loot' case to go ahead
12 Oct 01 | Arts
Klimt painting fetches $4m
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