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December 12, 2008

Long-awaited justice

Pricelss paintings subject of new documentary.

War. Art. Theft. Greed. Denial. Justice. White words flash on a black background beneath archival footage from the Nazi era. So begins Adele's Wish, a 58-minute documentary about stolen art, Austria's Nazi past and a woman's six-year legal battle for restitution and justice.

Vienna-born Maria Altmann, now 92 and living in Los Angeles, sued the Austrian government in 2000 to recover paintings stolen from her aunt and uncle in the Second World War. The paintings, displayed for more than 60 years in Austria's National Gallery, were considered national treasures.

The film could have been a complicated, tedious account of restitution claims and international law, but interviews with key players in the case make Altmann's story come alive. Several important art, provenance and Holocaust experts are also interviewed for historical context.

Screened at the Ridge Theatre, Dec. 3, before a sold-out audience of 480, the film's North American première was co-sponsored by the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. It also featured a question and answer session with director Terrence Turner, whose wife is Altmann's great-niece.

The documentary's somewhat misleading title refers to Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish socialite and patron of famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Of the six Klimt paintings owned by Bloch-Bauer and her husband, Ferdinand, two portraits of Bloch-Bauer were considered masterpieces and among Klimt's most important works. In her will, Bloch-Bauer expressed a wish that the Klimts be donated to the Austrian National Gallery upon Ferdinand's death.

When she died in 1925, Bloch-Bauer had no idea that five of the paintings would be seized by Austrian Nazis during the war. Never did she dream that, 75 years later, her niece, Maria – Ferdinand's sole surviving heir – would sue Austria for their restitution, nor that Austria would use her "wish" as an excuse for refusing the claim.

This refusal seems hypocritical under Austria's restitution law, enacted in 1998 to return stolen and expropriated art to its rightful owners. The Klimt paintings' enormous importance and value made them hard to give up, says E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann's lawyer.

In the film, Schoenberg offers detailed accounts of stalling, stonewalling and outright deception by the Austrian government in their effort to quash the lawsuit and keep the paintings in Austria. This included lying about the contents of Bloch-Bauer's will and pretending it was legally valid. Because Ferdinand actually owned the paintings, Bloch-Bauer's wish was unenforceable.

Oddly, it was the 1998 restitution law that led Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, also interviewed in the film, to uncover evidence proving that Adele's will had no legal standing and helping Altmann's case.

The Austrians tried to impose court costs of several million dollars, based on the value of recovering the art, says Schoenberg. In fact, the case's turning point happened in 2004, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that Altmann could sue Austria from within her own country. U.S. court costs, notes Schoenberg, were closer to $150.

The film depicts Altmann's legal battle chronologically, building suspense to her triumph in 2006, when binding arbitration awarded her the five paintings. She subsequently sold the first portrait for $135 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting. All five Klimts eventually sold for a combined value of almost $330 million.

Keeping the paintings would have entailed enormous insurance costs for Altmann, who emphasized throughout the film that the case was about justice, not money. The Austrian government has made no effort to buy the paintings back.

Though usually serious, the film does offer some funny moments. Altmann laughingly discusses Klimt's bawdy reputation, her suspicion that a romance existed between him and Bloch-Bauer, and her mother's indignation on the subject. Asked which actor should portray him in a movie, Schoenberg giggled and blushed before offering up Tom Cruise and James Spader.

Turner, who spent two years researching, writing and co-producing the film, acknowledged the courage and tenacity of Altmann, who was 85 when the case began.

Her story is a good example of how the rule of law can rectify some of the wrongs done in the Second World War, Turner said, and her triumph has meant a great deal for other restitution claimants.

Turner said he was pleasantly surprised by the film's positive reception. "I didn't know about any of this when I started, and it has been an education."

The next Vancouver screening of Adele's Wish will be held in March 2009.

Adrianne Fitch is a Vancouver freelance writer.