Maria Altmann, née Maria Victoria Bloch, was born on February 18, 1916, in Vienna, and passed away on February 7, 2011, in Los Angeles (14 Adar I, 5676 - 3 Adar I, 5771). Her parents were Marie Therese Bauer and Gustav Bloch, and in 1917 they changed their name to Bloch-Bauer.
Maria had an aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was not only a patron of the arts but also sat for some of Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings, such as The Lady in Gold and Judith I. Adele used to host salons including such luminaries as Gustav Mahler (yet another Gustav!), Richard Strauss, and Johannes Brahms. Adele’s father was a director of a large bank, and general director of the Oriental Railway. In 1903 Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a sugar magnate, had commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of her. In 1925, Adele died of meningitis, at age 44. That left the paintings and sketches of her and other Klimt works which Ferdinand had purchased in Ferdinand’s hands. Gustav Bloch-Bauer was the executor. Maria would remember her aunt by those paintings.
We jump forward to December 1937 when Maria Bloch-Bauer married opera singer Frederick “Fritz” Altmann. Ferdinand gave Adele’s large jeweled choker - which she had worn while sitting for at least one Klimt painting - to Maria. Times were very unsettled in those days in Austria, and shortly after the wedding Frederick was arrested and sent to Dachau in an attempt to force his brother Bernhard Altmann (then already in England) into surrendering his German textile factory. He did so; Frederick was released. The couple fled subsequent house arrest, leaving everything behind. They came to the U.S., eventually settling in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Bernhard sent Maria a cashmere sweater, which material was not readily available in the U.S. Maria found a buyer in Kerr’s Department Store in Beverly Hills, and became Bernhard’s U.S. representative. Eventually she started her own clothing company.
Meanwhile, the Klimt works fell into the hands of a German lawyer (a Nazi), and ultimately into the possession of the Austrian government. In 1998 Austria implemented a new law for restitution of artworks, and journalist Hubertus Czernin looked into the history of the paintings. Maria tried to sue the Austrian government, but the filing fee for a case was a percentage of the value of the property and she could not afford over $1.5 million. Even though the Austrian government later reduced the fee to $350,000, she still could not pay it. In 2000, using the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, she filed suit against Austria in U.S. District Court, Central District of California. Attorney Randol Schoenberg worked on the case. He was the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (Randol was another victim). The case went to the Supreme Court, which in 2004 ruled that Austria is not immune from a lawsuit. The parties went to binding arbitration with a panel of three Austrian judges, who would rule in 2006 that Austria was legally bound to return the art to Maria and the other family heirs. The art was returned.
The necklace, though, is said to have ended up on Hermann Goering’s wife. And previously Gustav Bloch-Bauer, Maria’s dad, had his Stradivarius cello taken from him; he died two weeks later of a broken heart.
There have been documentaries made about Maria Altmann, most recently Woman In Gold (2015).
While fighting the case, Maria, over 80 years old, reportedly said, “They will delay, delay, delay, hoping I will die. But I will do them the pleasure of staying alive.”