By, Alecs Dragus, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Spring 2022
The battle over the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I culminated in the unforgettable case Altmann v. Republic of Austria, when Maria Altmann, a U.S. citizen fought the Republic of Austria to recover five paintings by Gustav Klimt that belonged to her family.
The Portrait was commissioned by Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch, a “wealthy…sugar magnate,” at the start of 1900. It was finished in 1907. Years later, in 1925, Adele passed away. Adele’s will contained a kind request that her husband donate all five paintings to the Austrian Gallery upon his death. In making this request, Adele was entirely unaware of the “terror to come” when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. Ferdinand fled Austria and left behind his beloved painting of Adele. The Nazis divided Ferdinand’s property, which included his sugar company, his castle, and of course, his art collection. The portrait was given to the Austrian Gallery in 1941 accompanied by a note claiming the painting was donated “in fulfillment of the last will and testament of Adele.” In 1945, Ferdinand passed away. His will, which revoked all prior wills, designated “his entire estate to one nephew and two nieces,” amongst which was Maria Altmann. Around this time, Maria Altmann had fled the Nazis in Europe, and become a U.S. citizen in 1945.
Importantly, in 1945, the Second Republic of Austria was created and the country “declared all transactions motivated by the Nazis [as] void.” As such, Ferdinand’s family tried, but to no avail, to recover the Klimt paintings, particularly that of Adele, but the Austrian Gallery insisted that “Adele had bequeathed them to the Gallery in her will.”
The question at the heart of this case, that is of particular concern to estate planning, is which of the two wills should be upheld—Adele’s or Ferdinand’s?
Lawyers reviewing Adele’s will, in both Austria and the U.S. considered Adele’s request to be precatory language. Precatory language refers to “recommended, expected, [hopeful] or [wishful]” verbiage. Often this language includes phrases such as “wish,” “want,” “desire,” “ask,” “request,” and “should.” Courts interpret language consistent with these phrases as “expressions of…hope rather than a straightforward command.” In short, precatory language is not considered binding language, and often courts will not enforce requests containing such phrases. Contrastingly, words that invoke direct commands or requirements are enforceable.
Altmann eventually agreed to undergo binding arbitration in Austria for her paintings. The arbitrators unanimously found that after Adele made some non-binding requests to her husband after her death, the rightful owner of the paintings was Ferdinand, who died in exile as his property was being confiscated by the Nazis. Ferdinand left his entire estate to his family. This meant that Altmann finally prevailed. Altmann and her family decided to sell all the paintings to ensure their safety and Adele was relocated to the Neue Galerie in New York after being auctioned off at Christie’s for $135 million.
As for Altmann, in 2006, she was reunited with Adele. An exhibit was assembled at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for all five paintings. Altmann’s lawyer recalls, that after decades, all five paintings “that were once in her family home, [were all back] in one room, just like they had been back in Vienna, and she was there with her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchild, and her nieces and nephews. Everyone came to be as a family with these paintings.”
Adele’s Portrait taught us many lessons including those of restitution, courage, and fairness. Amongst these is also a lesson in will drafting, which cautions against using certain language if you wish that your bequest be followed and stand the scrutiny of the court.
 Lisa Iadevaia, Altmann v. Republic of Austria, 13 DePaul-LCA J. Art & Ent. L. 481, 481 (2003).
 Id. at 482
 Altmann v. Republic of Austria, 317 F.3d 954, 959 (9th Cir. 2002), opinion amended on denial of reh’g, 327 F.3d 1246 (9th Cir. 2003), and aff’d on other grounds, 541 U.S. 677, 124 S. Ct. 2240, 159 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2004).
 Iadevaia, supra note 1, at 483.
 University of California, Whatever Happened to Klimt’s Golden Lady? with E. Randol Schoenberg, YouTube (June 3, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk5YNt6Q4Z8&ab_channel=UniversityofCaliforniaTelevision%28UCTV%29.
 Precatory, Legal Information Institute (July 2020), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/precatory#:~:text=Examples%20of%20precatory%20words%20include,be%20seen%20in%20Dwyer%20v..
 University of California, supra note 14.
 Ruxi Rusu, Republic of Austria vs. Altmann: Klimt Goes to Court!, Daily Art Magazine (Nov. 11, 2021), https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/republic-of-austria-v-altmann-klimt-goes-to-court/.
 Rusu, supra note 18.
 University of California, supra note 15.