‘What do you know about art restitution?’
‘Not a thing.’
The question comes from Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, and the answer is from her lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, in Woman in Gold, the film dramatising Altmann’s quest for the return of five Gustav Klimt paintings that had been taken from her family during the Holocaust. Of the five, the most famous was the painting of Altmann’s aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), which for many years had been the centrepiece of the Austrian national collection at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.
The film, based largely on the non-fiction book The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, tells the story of Altmann and Schoenberg as they set out (‘against all odds’ as the cliché goes) to get back the paintings. Hence the question about art restitution. The obstacles are seemingly insurmountable: first there is a decision by the Austrian art restitutions advisory board (known as the Beirat), which rejects Altmann’s claim – and, according to the film, some of her evidence too. Then they take the battle to the American courts, in a jurisdiction far removed from any of the events at issue… or so it appeared. Thanks to the ground-breaking case of Altmann v. Republic of Austria, at trial, appellate and finally at the US Supreme Court, a door was opened for the possibility of bringing Austria to justice before a foreign court. But a full trial would have taken years and Altmann was already well into her eighties. So they try conciliation. It fails. Then arbitration, but an arbitration before a tribunal constituted in Austria with Austrian arbitrators. It was all but doomed. Watching the film, one marvels at how it was ever possible for this woman, supported by a young and penniless advocate, to take on a country defending a work that it considered its very own Mona Lisa.
Woman in Gold does an admirable job at balancing the niceties of the legal case with the demands of Hollywood. The tension builds during flashbacks of young Maria with her family during the Anschluss and how she and her husband miraculously escaped (perhaps a little too miraculously) the clutches of the Nazis. There isn’t much subtlety in those early scenes, a fact picked up on by at least one critic, but then again these weren’t subtle times.
The movie, above all, serves a purpose. That purpose is to bring attention to an area that touches on art, history, family and law, and which for so long was not talked about. Many of our readers are perhaps already sensitive to these issues. And to a large extent beginning with the Washington Conference of 1998 public awareness has grown by leaps and bounds (goaded on no doubt by the revelation of the Gurlitt trove in 2013). But the full truth about many of these cases is not yet known; there is still more to be uncovered. A movie can’t solve any of this. But it can at least add to the conversation.