The Supreme Court ruled today that United States courts have jurisdiction to hear lawsuits involving art and other property stolen by the Nazis nearly seven decades ago, a decision that some justices said could affect American diplomacy.
The justices found, by a margin of 6 to 3, that an elderly California woman’s efforts to regain possession of paintings once owned by her uncle, a sugar magnate and art patron in Austria before World War II, can be resolved in the United States despite a 1976 law that defines the terms for suing foreign governments in the federal courts.
That law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, provides some exceptions to the general rule that foreign governments are immune from suits. A technical but all-important question was whether the act can be applied retroactively.
Justice John Paul Stevens held for the majority that it can. “We find clear evidence that Congress intended the act to apply to pre-enactment conduct,” he wrote, basing his conclusion on the absence of specific language to the contrary and what he saw as ambiguities in the law’s wording.
Besides, he wrote, the principle that foreign governments should enjoy wide protection from suits in American courts is “a matter of grace and comity rather than a constitutional requirement.”
Today’s ruling does not address the merits of the suit brought by Maria V. Altmann, who is in her late 80’s and has described the American court system as her last chance in a decadeslong quest to retrieve the remains of the art collection of her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Rather, the justices ruled that the case can at least proceed in the federal courts.
At issue are six paintings by Gustav Klimt, including two portraits of Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s wife, Adele. The six works are in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna and are said to be worth more than $100 million.
Austria has maintained that the paintings were left to the state and its museums under the will of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925. The fact that the Nazis had illegitimate possession of them during World War II does not change the reality that they properly belong to Austria now, that country argues.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted, in a separate concurring opinion, that Austria “nowhere condones or bases its claim of ownership” on seizures of art works by the Nazis.
Ms. Altmann contends that her aunt’s wishes for the disposition of the paintings never achieved the status of a formal bequest to the government. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled Vienna in 1938, at the time of the German annexation of Austria, and died in 1945.
Ms. Altmann settled in California after the war and became an American citizen. She turned to the federal courts after learning that a suit in the Austrian courts would cost nearly $2 million, since filing fees are based on a percentage of the amount in dispute.