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A Los Angeles woman can sue the Austrian government in California for the return of six paintings taken from her family by the Nazis, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday. Maria Altmann and her family have been fighting for the return of the six Gustav Klimt paintings since shortly after World War II. Thursday’s unanimous decision was her biggest legal victory so far. Recently valued at $135 million, the six paintings include two of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, that had been commissioned by her uncle. The Bloch-Bauer paintings are some of Klimt’s best-known works and hang in Vienna’s Austrian Gallery. The Austrian government alleged that Bloch-Bauer’s will, in which she hoped the paintings would be turned over to the government, gives them ownership rights. It also argued that its ownership was established through a post-World War II tit-for-tat agreement in which Altmann was returned some of her family’s artworks while allowing others to stay in Austria, a once-common arrangement later outlawed by Austrian courts. The paintings had been owned by Ferdinand Bloch, a wealthy Czech sugar magnate living in Vienna when the Nazis took control of the country. When Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, Bloch fled to Switzerland. During WWII, he was convicted by the Nazi regime of tax evasion, and his considerable estate was divided by the government and its apparatchiks. His family has been trying to piece it back together since Bloch’s death in 1945 and the end of WWII. To give the 86-year-old Altmann the right to sue in California, the three-judge panel had to find that 1952′s Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act was applicable to property taken prior to FSIA’s enactment. “We are certain that the Austrians could not have had any expectation, much less a settled expectation, that the State Department would have recommended immunity as a matter of ‘grace and comity’ for the wrongful appropriation of Jewish property,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote. The ownership of many European works of art that changed hands during WWII has come into question in recent years. In 1998, federal authorities seized two paintings on loan to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Austrian works were painted by expressionist Egon Schiele. Two Jewish families claimed ownership.

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