A Klimt, a court, the Nazis and a very determined lady… with cashmere
A movie-inspiring legal battle over a stolen masterpiece shows famous art galleries and museums how not to do business
The short version of the story is that the Nazis got the painting the same way they got their evil, greedy mitts on so many other works of art during Germany’s annexation of Austria, known as the Anschluss; they simply stole it. After World War Two, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann—a former Dachau inmate—moved to the U.S. and became an accomplished businesswoman, California’s cashmere queen. Then when she was in her eighties, she tried to get the picture back along with four other paintings looted by the Nazis. The trouble was that the Austrian government said, Nope, sorry, we’ll be keeping those.
But Maria Altmann was one tough cookie who according to Donald Burris, “had tremendous control. She really knew what to do, and she had good instincts.”
Burris was part of the legal team that fought the eight-year battle on her behalf, one that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2004, the wise souls on the bench decided that Austria couldn’t ignore her lawsuit and could be pursued through the American legal system. Eventually, the case was decided unanimously in her favor by an arbitration panel in 2006 (she died at 94 in 2011). But it’s not as if she was going to hang a Klimt worth millions on her living room wall. Who would? And so the painting, ended up at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, bought for a cool $135 million with the help of EstÃ©e Lauder’s philanthropist son, Ronald.
“These were national masterpieces in their minds, and they were waiting for Maria to die.”
Then Hollywood discovered the story. “I was [left] on the cutting room floor,” says Burris. The filmmakers chose their own hero for the narrative, his law firm partner in Los Angeles, Randy Schoenberg, who—surprise—doesn’t look a thing like Ryan Reynolds, the actor portraying him in the film. Burris, a rumpled, courtly figure with a bird’s nest of salt and pepper hair, is gracious about the film, saying his colleague deserves the attention and praise. Schoenberg, whose grandmother was best friends with Atlmann, now no longer practices law but keeps busy with the new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust he helped build with some of the millions he earned from the case.
As for Burris, he regularly lectures on the case and was in Toronto Sunday night to talk about it at a gala dinner hosted by the local affiliate of the ORT, a charity that supports technological training around the world and which has strong ties to Israel.
You have to wonder why Vienna was always so intransigent, but Burris says, “These were national masterpieces in their minds, and they were waiting for Maria to die.”
Part of the case hinged on how Adele Bloch-Bauer “kindly asked” her husband to donate the paintings to the state museum after his death (which happened in 1945), but instead he left his estate to his nephews and nieces—which naturally included Altmann. And the Austrian government had what the British like to call bloody cheek arguing “they were victims of the Nazis like everybody else, which is inconsistent with the reality of what happened.” That’s putting it kindly, given that the Wehrmacht rolled into the country to the cheers of thousands.
Of course, the movies don’t bother with cases that don’t have a happy ending, and the New York Times suggested in March,“Most recovery attempts result in failure… the few successful claimants tend to have big bankrolls, meticulous records an exceptional run of luck.”
Burris, however, points out that some lawyers work on a contingency basis. “A lot of cases are resolved before you go to court. So you’re doing a lot of negotiating, basically.” When asked if he’d take on a big project like this again, he doesn’t hesitate to declare he would, “knowing there’s a wonderful result in the end, not just a result for yourself, a result for the people you’re representing. So the answer would be yes.”
Beware the art institution then that chooses to be on the wrong side of history, ethics and grandmothers with steely determination.