After a seven-year legal struggle for the return of Nazi-looted art treasures, Jonathan Petropoulos, the John V. Croul Professor of European History, director of The Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, and associate director of The Center for the Study of The Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights, has helped in the return of five multi-million dollar paintings by Gustav Klimt to their rightful owner. Maria Altmann, whose family fled Austria in 1939, was awarded the paintings by an Austrian arbitration court in a decision announced Jan. 17.
Petropoulos was a guest on NPR's "Air Talk" with Larry Mantle, broadcast Thursday, Jan. 19 through KPCC-FM, 89.3 in Pasadena.
"This is arguably the most important restitution case in history, and a remarkable verdict," says Petropoulos, who served as the expert witness for Altmann on the matter of the paintings and their theft. Once the case went into arbitration, Petropoulos submitted a decisive 150-page report to the Austrian arbitration court. In order to prepare the report, he carefully considered more than 10,000 pages of documents.
"The arbitration court's decision confirms the problematic nature of post-war Austrian restitution programs," he says. "The Austrians were not only complicit in the expropriation of cultural property from Jewish victims, but also came up short when it came to returning this property to victims and heirs. Art and cultural property has tremendous significance to families of victims and heirs. It's part of people's lives and retains its significance even as time passes, perhaps even increases in significance. Because of the importance, there should be no statute of limitations. Victims and heirs should have the right to pursue property that was stolen and never returned."
In June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Altmann had the right to sue the government of Austria for return of the paintings, which were seized during the Nazi occupation of Austria along with the entire estate of her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. The decision to award the paintings to Altmann is the culmination of litigation in the United States and Austria that has been protracted and, at times, bitter as the Austrian government fought to retain control of the paintings.
"These paintings are very important to Austrian national identity," says Petropoulos. In particular, the iconic Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is considered to be one of Klimt's finest works, and has been featured on the cover of exhibition catalogues published by the Austrian National Gallery. Next to Klimt's painting, The Kiss, it is his most recognizable work. "It is comparable," he says, "to the Louvre losing the Winged Victory of Samothrace (probably the second most famous piece in the museum after the Mona Lisa)."
Petropoulos says the Altmann case illustrates how the legacy of World War II is still tangible for families seeking to regain control of assets seized by the Nazis. "This is the unfinished business of World War II. There is a generational change occurring, and perhaps that makes it all the more important to complete this business," says Petropoulos, who has published extensively on the issues related to looted art and the appropriation of property during the Third Reich, and has served as the Research Director for Art and Cultural Property on the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. "I put my reputation on the line in this case, and it is very gratifying to see that my findings were upheld."
In addition, the Altmann case is a window into the complexity of issues related to stolen property. Because each case involving accusations of stolen or looted property is unique and involves challenging and careful research, historians like Petropoulos are called on to assist in examination and litigation. "This is clearly an area where historians' scholarship has practical application and significant consequences," says Petropoulos.
"We must proceed carefully with a lot of documentation and research. In this case, tremendous energy was put into research and investigation there were scholars in the United States and Austria who tried to discover every document relating to the case and the persecution of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. That's what it takes to resolve these issues. Historians have played very important roles researching the ownership of these paintings and the history of theft and restitution."
Petropoulos says that the decision of the Austrian arbitration court is worthy of great praise. "The members of this court were subjected to tremendous public and governmental pressure in Austria, and it speaks to their principled approach to the case that they ruled in this way. The Austrian government mobilized to keep the paintings in this case, and they are formidable. They mounted a very aggressive response to my report, and I can only imagine how the members of the arbitration panel felt. This case was in the Austrian press on an almost daily basis, and the court's diligence in this case is laudable."
Petropoulos is the author of Art as Politics in the Third Reich (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 2000), and over two dozen articles on the subject of art looting. He has also testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Banking and Financial Services, as well as the British House of Commons' Select Committee on Culture, Media, and Sport.