The year is 1938, officials are going thought all your family’s precious artifacts, taking them without your consent just because you are Jewish. This was the reality for Maria Altman and her family in Austria, now under Nazi Germany’s control. The Nazi officials take family heirlooms, that are worth thousands, a diamond necklace that once belonged to Maria’s aunt, a pair of diamond earrings that also belong to Maria’s aunt, and paintings. One of these paintings would start a long legal battle to recover, the painting was simply know as Lady in Gold. But in reality it was a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bawerm, Maria’s aunt.
In the year of 1907, the portrait of Adele was under way, the artist was up and coming Gustav Klint. The painting was hung in the place of honor in the house, that was until it was stolen in 1938 by the Nazi’s. In 1941 the painting was placed on sale or disposal by the German state, this is where the Austrian state gallery got ahold of the painting, placing it in Belvedere Place in Vienna. Here the paint’s name is changed, from Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bawerm to Woman in Gold. Why would they change the name you might ask, it’s to hide the identity of Adele, a Jewish woman. After the end of the war, the painting was never returned to the family, keeping the name of the painting the same, and in the same museum. Over time the Lady of Gold became the symbol of Vienna’s Golden Age.
In 1998 Austria’s parliament passed a restitution act, which included compensation for looted art. This caused a furry of people to began lawsuits to reclaim what belong to them, one of these famous lawsuits is Maria Altman VS Austria’s Government. For many years Maria believed that Adele’s painting had been legally donated to them, only at the age of 82 did she discover the truth of how the painting landed in Belvedere Place. After this she filed a law suit to reclaim Adele’s painting, and bring Adele home. Maria, who owned a clothing store, had no idea how to fight in the legal system, so she hired E Randol Schoenberg as her lawyer.
With this case, Randol was taking a risk finically. For all the work that he would have to do he would receive nothing if he lost, not even getting paid for representing Maria. But if he won he would get forty percent of the worth of the painting , which was in the high millions. The benefits out weighted the risks and Randol accepted the case, and began to look for information to help him win. The root of the legal problem was Adele’s will, which said that Ferdinand (her husband) donate the painting to the state museum after his death, which the Austrian government kept using. Randol disregarded with this fact with Ferdinand’s own will which says he left his estate, including the paintings, to his nieces and nephews. Maria was one of his nieces, so legally the painting belonged to her.
The legal battle turned out to be long, jumping from court house to court house, finally arriving at the steps of the Supreme Court. When the case arrived there, it was spreading like wild fire. A small old woman was suing the Austrian government for just a painting, that is not something you hear every day. Even an administrator from the George W. Bush said they sided with the Austrian Government, and that Maria should not be able to sue in the United States. But in the end, Maria and Randol win in the Supreme Court. This win only allowed them to continue their law suit, not to return the paintings to Maria.
The fear that Maria and Randol had was the even if they won in court, the Austrian government would file an appeal, then drag out the legal battle through delays. When asked about how she felt about it in a 2001 Los Angeles Times article she said,” They will delay,delay,delay hoping I will die. But I will do them the pleasure of staying alive.” But why was the Austrian government fighting so hard to keeping the Klimt painting? According to the BBC the Austrian government refused to settle because the problem was that the Adele’s painting had become an iconic picture of Austria.
In 2004 Randol went to an independent arbitration in Austria. An independent arbitration is a form of dispute resolution. It has a odd number, most common one to three people, that are independent from the fight, they are called arbitration. The two sides come together and present their case. Then the arbitration go and take a vote to say who wins. There was a risk when Randol and Maria did this, once the arbitration makes their votes the courts can not step in. In the end Randol was successful and won. The Austrian government was ordered to return the paints to Maria.