Fritz Altmann was a Jewish businessman and opera singer who escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria with his wife Maria Altmann in 1938. He died in 1994 at the age of 86, but his legacy lives on as his wife became a famous figure in the art world for her successful legal battle to reclaim five paintings by Gustav Klimt that were stolen by the Nazis from her family.
Early Life and Marriage
Fritz Altmann was born in 1908 in Vienna, Austria, to a wealthy Jewish family. His father was a banker and his mother was a socialite. He had three brothers: Bernhard, Robert, and Max. Fritz studied law and music at the University of Vienna and became an opera singer. He also worked for his brother Bernhard’s cashmere company, which had factories in Austria, France, and England.
In 1937, Fritz married Maria Bloch-Bauer, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a prominent patron of the arts and a muse of Gustav Klimt. Adele had died in 1925 and had left her husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer two portraits of herself and three landscapes by Klimt in her will. Ferdinand was a wealthy industrialist and a collector of art, who also owned several other paintings by Klimt, including one of Maria’s sister Luise.
Escape from Nazi Persecution
In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and began to persecute and plunder the Jewish population. Fritz and Maria’s lives were turned upside down as they faced harassment, confiscation, and arrest. Fritz was taken to Dachau concentration camp and was released only after his brother Bernhard agreed to transfer his foreign assets to the Nazis. Maria’s uncle Ferdinand fled to Switzerland, leaving behind his art collection, which was seized by the Nazis. Among the looted paintings were the five Klimts that belonged to Adele’s estate.
Fritz and Maria managed to escape from Vienna in October 1938 with the help of a sympathetic Dutch official who gave them fake visas. They traveled by train to Cologne, where they boarded a plane to Amsterdam. From there, they flew to London, where they reunited with Bernhard. They later moved to Liverpool, where Bernhard had established a new cashmere factory.
Life in America
In 1940, Fritz and Maria immigrated to America with their infant son Peter. They settled in Los Angeles, where they had two more children: Nelly and Charles. Fritz worked as an accountant for Lockheed Corporation, while Maria became a clothing boutique owner. They lived modestly but happily, keeping in touch with their relatives and friends who had survived the Holocaust.
Fritz died in 1994 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. He was buried at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California.
Restitution of Klimt Paintings
In 1998, Maria learned that the Austrian government had passed a law that allowed for the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners or heirs. She decided to pursue her claim to the five Klimts that had been taken from her family and were now displayed at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. She hired a young lawyer named E. Randol Schoenberg, who was the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and a family friend.
Maria and Schoenberg faced many legal obstacles and challenges as they fought against the Austrian authorities for over seven years. They eventually took their case to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor in 2004. In 2006, an arbitration panel in Austria awarded Maria the ownership of the five paintings, which were valued at over $300 million.
Maria sold four of the paintings to private collectors and museums, including Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York, which bought Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also known as The Woman in Gold) for $135 million. She donated one painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Maria died in 2011 at the age of 94. She was praised as a courageous and inspiring woman who fought for justice and dignity. Her story was made into a film called Woman in Gold in 2015, starring Helen Mirren as Maria and Max Irons as Fritz.
Fritz Altmann cause of death was Alzheimer’s disease, but he left behind a remarkable legacy of survival and love. He supported his wife Maria in her quest to reclaim her family’s heritage and honor their memory. He also witnessed the triumph of art over tyranny and the restoration of historical truth. He was a man who lived through dark times but never lost his hope or his humanity.