Maria Altmann, whose seven-year battle to recover her family’s Nazi-looted paintings riveted the art and legal worlds, died Monday (Feb. 7) at 94 after a prolonged illness in her Los Angeles home.
Stripped of her childhood wealth, she became a multi-millionairess in her late eighties, after forcing the Austrian government to return five family-owned works by the Viennese art nouveau painter Gustav Klimt.
Subsequently, the paintings were sold for a total of $327.7 million. The crown jewel was the artist’s iconic “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” Altmann’s aunt, which is now on permanent display at Ronald S. Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York.
Maria Viktoria was born in Vienna in 1916 into a fabulously wealth family of assimilated Jews, all of whose possessions and art were taken by the Nazi regime after the 1938 annexation of Austria.
In 1999, E. Randol Schoenberg, a young Los Angeles lawyer, took up the seemingly hopeless effort to recover the Klimt painting. He took the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2006 Austria acceded to his demands.
In a sense, Altmann’s life embodied the rise and fall of the European Jewish upper class.
Born to immense wealth, Altmann’s family lost it all during the Nazi reign. After finding refuge in Los Angeles, she supported herself by selling clothes for mature women from her home
Even after regaining most of her fortune, she continued to live in her modest Cheviot Hills home and refused to part with her “beloved 1994 Chevy.”
An ardent opera buff. Altmann had little involvement with the Jewish community.
In 2005, she told the Jewish Journal, “Unfortunately, I wasn’t really raised Jewish. My husband, whose family came from Poland, was very strongly Jewish.
“We used to have arguments about that. I agreed to have a ritual circumcision for our sons, if he let me have a Christmas tree.”
Perhaps her closest relationship to the Jewish people, she said, derived from a sense of shared fate.