Republic of Austria v. Altmann
, 541 U.S. 677
), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States
held that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act
applies retroactively. It is one of the most recent cases that deals with the "Anti Retroactivity Doctrine", which is a doctrine that holds that courts should not construe a statute to apply retroactively
(to apply to situations that arose before it was enacted) unless there is a clear statutory intent that it would do so. This means that, regarding lawsuits filed after its enactment, the FSIA standards of sovereign immunity
and its exceptions apply even to conduct that took place before 1976.
The result of this for the plaintiff, Maria Altmann, was that she could bring an action against Austria for recovery of a painting stolen by the Nazis and now housed in a government museum. Both parties agreed to arbitration in an Austrian court in 2005. The court ruled in favor of Altmann on 16 January 2006.
Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of two of the paintings, had written in her last will: "Meine 2 Porträts und 4 Landschaften von Gustav Klimt, bitte ich meinen Ehegatten nach seinem Tode der österr. Staats-Galerie in Wien zu hinterlassen" - I ask my husband to bequeath my 2 portraits and the 4 landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian state gallery in Vienna after his death. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer signed a statement acknowledging Adele's wish in her last will. He also donated one of the paintings to Belvedere Gallery in Vienna in 1936. However, in a controversial ruling, the Austrian Supreme Court determined that Adele was probably never the legal owner of the paintings. Rather, it view it as more likely that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was their legal owner and that in turn Altmann was the rightful heir of Ferdinand's estate.
The ruling in favor of Maria Altmann came as a great shock to the Austrian public and the government. The loss of the paintings was regarded in Austria as a loss of national treasure. The Austrian government received wide criticism from the opposition parties for its failure to secure a deal with Maria Altmann at an earlier stage. Maria Altmann told the government that the time was up and there would be no deal from her side anymore. She had attempted earlier to come to some mutual agreement in the 1990s, however the government kept on ignoring her offers and her letter. The Austrian government declined to accept a condition of the arbitration which would have allowed it preferentially to purchase the paintings at an attested market price. The paintings left Austria in March 2006 and were flown to Los Angeles. There were various attempts by Austrians to buy at least some of the works back.
Maria Altmann's story has been recounted in two documentary films. Adele's Wish
by filmmaker Terrence Turner, who is the husband of Altman's great-niece, was released in 2008. Adele's Wish
features interviews with Altmann, her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, and leading experts from around the world. Altmann's story was also the subect of the documentary Stealing Klimt
, which was released 2007. That movie also featured interviews with Altmann and others who were closely involved with the story.
- Hubertus Czernin. Die Fälschung: Der Fall Bloch-Bauer und das Werk Gustav Klimts. Czernin Verlag, Vienna 2006. ISBN 3-7076-0000-9