David Calling

Justice at 90

Maria Altman of Los Angeles is richer today by $135 million. It’s a wonderful story of justice done at last, but she had to wait to be 90 for it.  She sold a picture she had inherited, and Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, has bought it and will give it to the museum he founded in Manhattan. The picture is very famous and much reproduced, a sumptuous portrait done in 1907 in golds and blacks by Gustav Klimt of Adele Bloch-Bauer. A collector, Mr. Bloch-Bauer left this portrait of his wife in his will to his brother’s children, the last survivor of whom is Mrs. Altman.  But the Nazis had stolen it, and after the war the Austrians refused to return it, brazenly hanging the picture (and others belonging to the Bloch-Bauers) for half a century in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, thus showing themselves in their true colors as thieves and war profiteers.    

Mrs. Altman took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that she could sue the Austrian government. Confronted at last with the legal obligation to right a wrong, the Austrian chancellor, a cheapskate by the name of Wolfgang Schuessel, said that Austria could not afford to pay the picture’s valuation — rich enough to steal but too poor to buy, that’s his country and its way of making amends for the crimes of their fathers. Let them choke on the shame of it.
Exception is made for Hubertus Czernin, a count and a true aristocrat. For one thing he exposed the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, who did so much to degrade the United Nations when he was its Secretary-General, and later to degrade Austria as its president.  And for another thing, he campaigned hard for the restitution to the Bloch-Bauer family of all the pictures stolen from them, and forced through the law that made this possible. This April Maria Altman received the pictures, and Czernin traveled to Los Angeles to congratulate her. Unfortunately he had a rare cell disease, and died aged only 50. Had he lived a few more days, he would have been glad to learn that Klimt’s masterpiece has a safe future in a museum. Here is one man who did what he could to rescue his country’s lost honor.

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