Maria Altmann

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The Independent Online

Maria Altmann, who died on 7 February aged 94, was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria who successfully fought to recover Gustav Klimt paintings looted from her Jewish family.

Altmann was already in her 80s in 1998 when she and her friend and attorney E Randol Schoenberg began a legal fight with the Austrian government over the paintings, which included a celebrated gold-encrusted picture of her aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The 1907 masterpiece hung in the Gallery Belvedere in Vienna; the Austrian government contended that Altmann's aunt, who died in 1925, had willed it to the Austrian national gallery.

However, Schoenberg argued that the claim was invalid, and that the family's art collection was plundered more than a decade later by the Nazis.

Altmann's lawsuit was given little chance of success at the time, but in 2004, the US Supreme Court ruled that her suit could proceed. In 2006, an Austrian mediation panel awarded the five paintings to Altmann and four other heirs. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was purchased for $135m that year and is now in the Neue Galerie in New York. The other four paintings were auctioned for $192.7m later that year and are now in private collections.

Altmann (left, AP), who was born Maria Viktoria Bloch-Bauer in Vienna, came from a wealthy Jewish family that was stripped of its businesses, home and other wealth after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. She was a 21-year-old newlywed when the Gestapo seized her husband, Fritz, and sent him to the Dachau concentration camp in an effort to force his brother to turn over a textile factory. The Gestapo flew her to Berlin to seal the deal for her husband's release. They then fled to the Netherlands and later moved to the US.

Her aunt's husband fled to Switzerland, and his home and art collection were seized. He died in Zurich in November 1945 after failing to recover his wife's portrait and other paintings.

In 1998, an Austrian investigative journalist revealed details of the Nazi plundering of Jewish-owned artworks, and Austria enacted a law requiring the return of looted art. Altmann, then an elderly grandmother, began her fight to recover her family's property.

The Vienna group Jewish Community called Altmann a "fearless fighter for justice".