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  • Owner wants Nazi-seized Klimts to stay in Austria
    1.18.2006 VIENNA (Reuters)

    A woman who won an ownership dispute with Austria over paintings by Art Nouveau master Gustav Klimt seized during Nazi rule says she wants the most famous works to stay in Austria, but Vienna says it can't afford them.

    An arbitration court on Monday ordered Austria to return five Klimt paintings to Maria Altmann, heir of their Jewish former owner who fled the country under the Nazis.

    The paintings, which experts value at more than 100 million euros ($121.4 million), include one of Klimt's most iconic paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a portrait of the original owner's wife surrounded by gold, and a second portrait of her.

    "I would also like the portraits to remain in Austria," Altmann told Austrian state television late on Monday, adding she wanted the landscapes to remain in museums.

    The paintings were seized by the Nazis when Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and were put on display in Austria's Belvedere Gallery after World War Two, where they are still kept today.

    Austrian culture minister Elisabeth Gehrer said, however, that Austria could not afford to buy back the paintings, citing media reports that Adele Bloch-Bauer I, also called the 'Golden Adele', alone was worth between 70 million and 100 million euros.

    "70 million euros amounts to the whole budget for all museums in Austria -- all public museums," Gehrer told Austrian state radio, adding that the government would comply with the ruling and hand over the paintings.

    "That means we are not financially able to make purchases here, but talks will be held. Perhaps there are sponsors or the family itself is prepared to make something available as a loan," Gehrer said.

    Altmann, 89, the niece of the paintings' owner, Czech sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, sued Austria in 1999. She and the Austrian government agreed to observe the ruling of an arbitration court in Vienna, which found in her favour.

    When Bloch-Bauer's wife Adele died in 1925, she left a will requesting her husband to leave the artwork to the Austrian gallery upon his death.

    Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled Vienna to Switzerland, where he died in 1945.

    In his will, he left everything to his nephew and nieces, including Altmann. But his family agreed in 1946 the paintings belonged to the Austrian government, based on his wife's will.

    Altmann, who fled to California to escape the Nazis and is Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's sole surviving heir, said the family was extorted into signing away its rights to the paintings in 1946 and had been lied to by the Austrian government.

    Klimt paintings of an importance similar to the Adele portraits are rarely sold in art auctions. In 2003, a landscape showing a country house on the Attersee in Austria, changed hands for $26 million at Sotheby's in New York.