LOS ANGELES -- When she looks at the print hanging on her living room wall, Maria Altmann can't help but wince and recall when she used to gaze upon the real thing, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer."
The painting that Nazis stole from her family more than 60 years ago portrays the haunting face of an attractive woman encased in triangles of splendid gold.
Considered one of Klimt's best works, the portrait of Altmann's aunt was seized along with five other Klimt paintings by the Nazis soon after they came to power in Austria in 1938. The works, worth as much as $150 million, are in the Austrian Gallery, and Altmann is going to the US Supreme Court tomorrow to try to reclaim them.
But the 88-year-old widow doubts that she will live long enough to see the paintings hang in her Los Angeles home, even if the court rules in her favor.
"It's not as if they'll immediately order marshals into the gallery to seize them and bring them back to me," Altmann said.
In recent years, Holocaust survivors and heirs have been trying to recover art and money stolen by the Nazis, and California has been particularly aggressive in helping victims.
The issue before the Supreme Court this week is whether Altmann has the right to bring a lawsuit in a US court against the Austrian government to seek the return of the paintings. After a California court ruled in her favor, the Supreme Court agreed to consider Austria's appeal.
The outcome could have broad implications for others, including two pending appeals before the Supreme Court that involve a lawsuit against Japan by women who say they were used as sex slaves during World War II and a lawsuit by Holocaust survivors and heirs against France's national railroad for transporting more than 70,000 Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps.
Altmann's lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, said his client's case is simple: "It's artwork that was looted by the Nazis, and US law states that it must be given back."
But an attorney for Austria said that Altmann's aunt clearly intended for the Austrian Gallery to have the paintings, and that any conflict should be settled in that country's courts.
Scott P. Cooper of Los Angeles, one of Austria's lawyers in the case, said there is no question the property was taken by Nazis.
"The issue is whether the US has the power to compel a foreign power to turn them over," he said. "The gallery where the paintings hang is a federal museum. That's why this is a case of sovereign immunity."
Altmann, whose five siblings are dead, said she would have sued in Austria but the cost was prohibitively high. If the paintings are returned to her, she would like to see them in museums in America or Canada.
Altmann's aunt, who died in 1925, had asked that the art be donated to the Austrian Gallery, but her uncle, who died in exile in Switzerland in 1945, specified that his possessions should be given to Altmann and two other family members. Altmann is the only one of the three still living.
In 1948, Cooper said, two of Altmann's brothers traveled to Vienna, and with help from Allied military forces in the country, recovered the paintings. He said the brothers, who have since died, gave them to the gallery, in accordance with their aunt's wishes.
If the Supreme Court rules in Altmann's favor, the case will go to a US court for trial.
"We'll try it on the merits, which is about when Austria obtained the valid title to the paintings," Schoenberg said. "If we argue on the merits, Austria will have to return them.