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News and notes from the San Antonio art scene

Potentially Vast Liability

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 vote that U.S. courts do have the jurisdiction to hear Maria Altmann's case seeking the return of three Gustav Klimt paintings that were seized from her uncle by the Nazis during World War II `see A Market for Injustice, March 11-18, 2004`. The portraits, which currently reside in the state-run Austrian Gallery and are valued at $150 million, are of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer.

Based on an exception stated in the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, two lower courts ruled that because the Austrian Gallery conducts related commercial activity in the U.S., Austria cannot claim sovereign immunity and it can be sued in U.S. courts. In the Supreme Court case, Republic of Austria et al v. Maria V. Altmann, Austria sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, claiming that Altmann's suit revolved around action taken prior to 1976, placing it outside the jurisdiction of the FSIA.

"Nothing in the FSIA or the circumstances surrounding its enactment suggests that it should not be applied to petitioners' 1948 actions," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. While he cited evidence that Congress intended the Act to apply retroactively, he also said that the holding was narrow and only applied to the matter of the FSIA's reach.

At age 88 - and seven years into her lawsuit - Maria Altmann may finally have her day in court. Unless Austria agrees to settle, the case will return to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judge will have to determine who owns the paintings. Historically, this will be the first time a foreign nation has been sued by a private entity in the U.S. courts. The case may pave the way for similar war crime-related cases.

In upholding the 9th Circuit's ruling, Stevens was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, William H. Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas dissented. Kennedy wrote the dissent, stating that in upholding jurisdiction the court "opens foreign nations worldwide to vast and potential liability for expropriation claims in regards to conduct that occurred generations ago, including claims that have been the subject of international negotiation and agreement" and, in doing so "injects great prospective uncertainty into our relations with foreign sovereigns."

Work That Space

Blue Star Art Space has discovered another gallery in its cavernous home at the Blue Star complex. Executive Director Bill FitzGibbons has started scheduling small solo exhibits in the new front office space, an airy, geometrically unpredictable room designed by Ford Powell & Carson architect and Blue Star board member John Gutzler. James Cobb will show in the new space, christened Gallery Five, for Contemporary Art Month in July. After that, says FitzGibbons, "the executive director will probably invite artists."

Compiled by Susan Pagani and By Elaine Wolff

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