Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A Painting Taken By The Nazis Is Returned Decades Later

Peter Haley, Pacific Lutheran University
Courtesy of Peter Altman
Peter Altman speaking about his family's fight to win back the painting, "Portrait Of Adele Bloch Bauer" by Gustav Klimt.

 This story originally aired on May 6, 2017

Have you ever lost something that’s really important to you? Have you ever had something taken from you? Maybe it was a house that was always one payment behind and you just could not keep up and back to the bank it went.
Or maybe, you were on the losing end of a war. You keep your life, but all of your wealth and possessions are gone.

This is what happened to the Bloc-Bauer family. It was during World War II in Vienna. They fled with the clothes on their backs and some diamonds and pearls stuffed into their pockets.

Some of these jewels are displayed in Peter Altman’s Tacoma home. These beautiful, shiny trinkets are a sliver of a fraction of what this family once owned. Decades after the war, Peter’s mother, Marie Altman, won a nearly impossible battle to get something larger back that the Nazis had taken down from wall of the family’s elegant Vienna apartment.

The apartment belonged to Peter’s great-uncle, Ferdinand Bloc Bauer. Ferdinand made lots of money by refining sugar.

“He had a castle -- the Klimts were a very small part of his wealth,” says Altman.

By the “Klimts” Peter is referring to portraits of Ferdinand’s beautiful, beguiling wife named Adelle done by the impressionist painter Gustav Klimt in the early 1900s.

You’ve probably seen the one portrait of Adele that is better known as “Woman In Gold.” It glows. The piece is layered with with gold leaf. Primary colors of paint are dotted here and there with Adele draped in jewels wearing a beautiful dress.

Not only did Klimt paint Adelle, the two were also friends. They hung out with composer Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud.

Adelle died of meningitis in 1925 at age 43. Then, the war happened. Germany invaded and took everything. The apartment — gone. The violins, the porcelain collection, and those paintings were all gone.

Most of the family knew to leave the country. Some were killed. Some took their own lives. Some were sent to concentration camps and managed to escape.

Adelle’s great-niece, Marie, Peter’s mother, fled to the United States with her husband and ended up settling in Los Angeles.

Peter Altman tells the story of how his uncle escaped the Nazis.

By 1998, Peter was a bus driver living in Tacoma and "A Portrait of Adele Boch-Bauer," was an iconic, national treasure in Austria.

The family thought that Ferdinand left the paintings to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. But a reporter discovered that Ferdinand’s final will did not say this. Marie teamed up with the attorney, Randol Shoenberg and sued the Austrian government. After eight years in U.S. and Austrian courts, Maria and Randol won.

In 2006, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was returned to Maria. It never ended up on the walls of her home. The painting was sold for $135 million, a record at that time. Today it hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York. The money was divided up in the family.

Peter says his mother’s fight to regain her family’s possessions kept her going. Once this battle was won, she started to slip away. Maria died in 2011, just shy of 95.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.