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The facts of the case
Respondent Maria v. Altmann was the sole surviving named heir of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Bloch-Bauer owned numerous valuable paintings, including six works of Gustav Klimt. After he had moved to Zurich, his residence was occupied by the Nazis. All of the six paintings by Gustav Klimt were taken by a Nazi lawyer named Dr. Erich Fuchrer (Perez 178). The lawyer sold three paintings to the Austrian State Gallery and one to the Museum of the City of Vienna (Supreme Court of the United States par. 6). In 1947, Robert Bentley, the respondent’s brother, attempted to recover the property stolen from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer during the war. He received the permission to retain three of Klimt’s paintings during his lifetime. In 1998, the journalist found out that the paintings had not been donated by Bloch-Bauer and Adele to the Gallery. When Altmann sought recovery of the paintings and other artworks, the committee of Austrian government officials refused to return six of Klimt’s paintings. The respondent filed a lawsuit in Austria but later dismissed it because of the big sum of money required to pay to proceed. Later, she filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court.
Altmann’s complaint addressed violations of Austrian, International, and California law. The main issue of the lawsuit can be considered the violation of the respondent’s right to return the property that belonged to her based on her possession of sole heir’s rights. The lawsuit asserted jurisdiction of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which authorized federal civil suits against foreign claims (Hoffman 174). The issue that caused the violation of the respondent’s rights was the unwillingness of Austria to return the property of Altmann by claiming its immunity to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act based on the absence of its retroactive application. In such way, Austria claimed that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act could not be applied to this case as the Act did not apply retroactively to conduct preceding its enactment (Choi 175).
The Court agreed that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act applied to the case. The Court of Appeals claimed that though the paintings were sold to the Austrian State Gallery in 1948, prior to the enactment of the Act, Austria could not hold immunity for its wrongdoing. Therefore, the decision revealed that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act applied retroactively to conduct that took place prior to 1976. As a result of this decision, Altmann’s claim was authorized to proceed (Chorazak 374).
Reasons for the decision
The reason for declining Austria’s claim of immunity to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act in the discussed case was based on the analysis of the overall structure of the Act that supports its retroactivity. The Court of Appeals conducted a detailed historical research to explore the ability of the Act to attach new legal significance to the events (Glahn and Taulbee 195). Based on the results of the research, the Court concluded that in the context of suits against foreign states, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act could apply to pre-enactment conduct. The Court let Altmann’s claim proceed claiming that the doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity is aimed at reflecting the current political situation and retroactivity is consistent with the purposes of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (Chorazak 375).
Choi, Sue. “The Legal Landscape of the International Art Market after Republic of Austria v. Altmann.” Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business. 26.1. (2005): 167-200. Print.
Chorazak, Mark. “Clarity and Confusion: Did Republic of Austria v. Altmann Revive State Department Suggestions of Foreign Sovereign Immunity?” Duke Law Journal 55 (2005): 373-404. Print.
Glahn, Gerhard, and James Larry Taulbee. Law among Nations: An Introduction to Public International Law. 10th ed. 2015. New York: Routledge. Print.
Hoffman, Barbara. “International Art Transactions and the Resolution of Art and Cultural Property Disputes: A United States Retrospective.” Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy and Practice. Ed. Barbara Hoffman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 159-178. Print.
Perez, Nahshon. Freedom from Past Injustices: A Critical Evaluation of Claims for Intergenerational Reparations, Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2012. Print.
Supreme Court of the United States. Republic of Austria et al., Petitioners v. Maria v. Altmann. 2004. Web.