LA woman who reclaimed Nazi looted art dies

A detail of Gustav Klimt's 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.'
A detail of Gustav Klimt's 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.'
Estate of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer

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Maria Altmann, the Los Angeles woman who successfully reclaimed five Gustav Klimt paintings that Nazis had looted from her family in Austria, died Monday.

When Maria Altmann was a girl in Vienna, her well-to-do family filled its home with art - including five paintings by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

"I grew up with the paintings, they were hanging in my uncle’s house. I was 9 when my aunt died," Altmann said several years ago, after she’d won the legal battle to reclaim the valuable paintings.

That aunt was the model for one of Klimt’s most famous paintings, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” The Nazis took the work, and the property of many Jewish families, after the 1938 German invasion of Austria. Altmann’s family escaped to Holland on its way to the United States.

"But the Klimts at the time were really the last things I worried about, about any earthly goods I didn’t worry. I just wanted my parents, my husband, and me and my siblings to get out with our lives," she said.

When she reached her 80s, the paintings occupied her thoughts again. The Austrian government owned them and she wanted the family’s legacy back.

When Altmann wrote a polite letter requesting that it return the Klimt paintings, she said the Austrian government didn’t respond.

"I’m not a fighter. I turned into a fighter," she said and took her lawsuit against that government to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Austria returned the paintings. After the LA County Museum of Art briefly exhibited them to eager crowds, Altmann’s family sold the works for $327 million. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” fetched a record $135 million; five family heirs split the money.

Maria Altmann was 94-years-old when she died in her Cheviot Hills home.