Insider puts on display his life ‘loving museums’

Planning a visit to a museum always is a major challenge to the ambitious art lover. How many works of art can we hope to see? What should we see first? What can be safely saved for last? And what can be omitted without regret if time and energy run out?

Karl Katz is someone who considered all of these questions from an insider’s point of view. A seasoned planner, designer, curator and director of museums, he helped to create the Israel Museum and was the long-serving chairman of special projects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. His goal in “The Exhibitionist: Living Museums, Loving Museums” (The Overlook Press) is to reminisce about his own colorful career and, at the same time, to offer “a narrative field guide on how to make museums come alive.”

Like every museum professional, he has come to know the rich and powerful, ranging from Jackie Kennedy Onassis to the mayor of Jerusalem. But he is unimpressed by celebrity. “[A]n architect like Frank Gehry can make a museum a landmark before a single piece of art is installed,” he writes. “But few books pay attention to the people who make museums: the directors, curators, designers and educators who shape each collection of objects and ideas into an institution.”

Raised in Brooklyn, educated at Columbia and deeply inspired by a visit to Israel in 1950, his first opportunity in the museum world was an invitation to participate in a show called “From the Land of the Bible” at the Metropolitan — “an exhibit we called by its unfortunate acronym, FLOB.” He felt a little lonely there: “When I arrived in 1953, I felt like the only Jew in the building — there certainly weren’t matzoh in the dining halls on Passover.”

Then he joined an archaeological expedition in Israel, where he quickly realized the Hebrew he had learned in the yeshiva was not the same as the lingua franca of the Jewish homeland: “[M]y language was speckled with the Hebrew equivalent to old English’s thees and thous.” But it was in the Middle East that he acquired firsthand expertise in the acquisition of museum-quality antiquities, not only in Israel but also in Egypt, Turkey and Iran.

Thus began his museum career. He was recruited as the director the Bezalel National Museum, which had been Israel’s first museum, and then he was approached by Teddy Kollek, the future mayor of Jerusalem, to join the planners of what would become the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The challenges went far beyond the ordinary concerns of collectors and curators of art — for example, the preferred site for the new museum presented strategic concerns. Yigael Yadin, a famous general who was just as well known for his accomplishments as an archaeologist, “was afraid that artillery from Bethlehem would find a sprawling hilltop complex an easy target.” Katz recalls the planning committee “finally convinced him that if the Arabs were going to shell anything, they would shell everything, and he gracefully backed down.”

Katz was lured back to New York after the opening of the Israel Museum when he was invited to accept the directorship of the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue. One of his mentors, rabbi and archaeologist Nelson Glueck, advised him to take the job: “Karl, you’re a showman, an exhibitionist.” Even so, Katz ran into opposition from the conservative members of the board of trustees when he proposed a show about the 1968 protests in Paris and Prague, and an even more heated response to an exhibit on Purim that placed the holiday in its historically accurate Persian setting: “To them Persia meant Islamic, and ours was a Jewish museum.” When he first proposed to open the museum without charging admission on Saturdays, as was done at the Israel Museum, “I hit a solid wall of no,” although the board later relented.

The breaking point came when the board of the Jewish Museum, which was unhappy with Katz’s interest in contemporary art and social controversies, resolved to return to presenting only exhibits with strictly Jewish content, a restriction that forced Katz to resign. Ironically, he returned to the museum where his career had started — the Metropolitan, whose director, Thomas Hoving, had taken notice of “all these fabulous shows at the Jewish Museum.” Once again, Katz was ranging around the world in search of art treasures, an effort that brought rare loans from China and the Soviet Union to New York City.

Yet it was a much sought after loan of the Book of Kells from Ireland in the 1970s that presented the biggest obstacle. According to a belief that was shared by the Irish archbishop whose blessing he needed to borrow the Book of Kells, no male children would be born if the medieval manuscript was no longer on Irish soil. “Actually, your eminence, when the Book of Kells went to England in 1953 to be rebound, plenty of Irish boys were born,” Katz boldly replied. The archbishop was persuaded and the exhibit at the Met was so successful that it toured across the United States. The goal of the exhibit planners, in the words of Irish professor G. Frank Mitchell, had been achieved: “We hope to implant in the American mind the idea that Ireland can create more than bombs and bullets.”

The Met and the Israel Museum may be the jewels of his curriculum vitae, but even more remarkable are the reach and diversity of his long career, all vividly and charmingly revealed in the pages of “The Exhibitionist.” Katz played a role in the design of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, for example, as well as the P.T. Barnum museum in Bridgeport, Conn. — a fitting assignment for a man who embraced and embodied the role of the showman.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: June 1-7, 2013



More than 20 dramas, documentaries, comedies, foreign language films and shorts will be shown at seven venues from Thousand Oaks to Beverly Hills. Highlights at the eighth annual L.A. Jewish Film Festival include tonight’s star-studded opening-night gala celebration with the premiere of the comedy “Putzel,” starring Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”); “Neil Diamond: Solitary Man,” a documentary on the music icon; “Becoming Henry/Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir,” with Polanski addressing every aspect of his celebrated and controversial life; “My Father and the Man in Black,” the untold story of Johnny Cash and his talented but troubled manager; and “When Comedy Went to School,” the closing-night film, which presents an entertaining portrait of the country’s greatest generation of comedians. A program of the Jewish Journal. Sat. Through June 6. Various times, locations. $40 (opening-night gala), $7-$12 (films). (213) 368-1661.


Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist and director of spiritual development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; the Rev. Janet Bregar, a pastor of Westwood’s Village Lutheran Church; and the Rev. Tom Eggebeen, interim pastor at Hawthorne’s Calvary Presbyterian Church, reflect on the passages from the Five Books of Moses that guide their lives. Jeff Bernhardt, editor of “On Sacred Ground,” moderates. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom hosts. Sat. 12:30 p.m. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.


The Industry, Los Angeles’ home for new and experimental opera, presents this showcase of excerpts from six new operatic works-in-progress. Included are Brooklyn composer Aaron Siegel’s “Brother Brother,” an operatic work for percussion, strings, choir, soloists and actors that explores the enigma of brotherhood, and “Pierrot Lunaire,” a new theatrical song cycle by rising star composer Mohammed Fairouz with libretto by cultural critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum (“The Anatomy of Harpo Marx”). The performances feature the modern music collective wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree and The Industry’s music director, Marc Lowenstein. Sat. 2 p.m. Free. Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000.



This annual gathering near Pico-Robertson builds bridges among local neighbors, businesses and nonprofits, and celebrates the cultural diversity of the community. This year, the 16th annual SoRo (South Robertson) Festival features a variety of L.A.’s hottest gourmet food trucks, including Kosher Grill on Wheels; more than 60 vendors, with the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles and ORT America among them; a boutique with Jewish artwork for sale; live musical entertainment and dancing. Attractions for children include a rock climbing wall, arts and crafts, and more. Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. South Robertson Boulevard, between Cattaraugus Avenue and Beverlywood Street (just north of the 10 Freeway at the Robertson Boulevard exit). (310) 295-9920.


JTeenLA’s “Telling the Jewish Story” showcases a diverse range of short films from Southland students. Halston Sage of Nickelodeon’s “How to Rock” introduces the festival, and a teen filmmaker panel and reception follow the screenings. A program of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, BJE — Builders of Jewish Education and The Righteous Conversations Project. Sun. 3 p.m. $6 (students, seniors), $8 (adults). Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (213) 368-1661.


For those who are curious about Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, which is Hebrew for “vessel of God,” or who have ever wondered why the origin story of the world’s first superhero seems like it’s straight out of the Book of Exodus, today’s discussion explores the Man of Steel’s Jewish roots. Marking 75 years since Superman debuted in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics, Larry Tye, author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” the first full-fledged bio of Superman; Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Comics; Jack Larson, television’s original Jimmy Olsen; and “Superman” director Richard Donner appear in conversation. A Q-and-A and book signing follow. Sun. 2 p.m. $8 (general), $6 (members), $5 (full-time students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.



If you’re interested in learning about Turkey’s Jewish community, which has a long history of self-sufficiency, don’t miss tonight’s shmoozefest, featuring young Jewish voices from Turkey discussing their traditions, triumphs and challenges, which continue to define their community. Organized by Entwine, the young adults outreach movement of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and presented in association with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Wed. 7-10 p.m. Free. Mama’s Secret Bakery & Cafe, 8314-8316 W. Third St., Los Angeles.



Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic stars Barbara Sukowa as the influential German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Arendt. Using footage from the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial — during which Arendt introduced her now-famous concept of “the Banality of Evil” in her controversial reporting of the trial for The New Yorker — and weaving a narrative that spans three countries, von Trotta turns the invisible passion for thought into immersive and dramatic cinema. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (children under 12, seniors). Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (310) 478-3836.

Bill would put West Bank museums under Israeli control

A bill that would place museums in West Bank settlements under Israeli law passed its preliminary reading.

Museums in the settlements could request government funding under the measure, which was sponsored by Uri Ariel of the National Union Party. It still must pass two more readings before it becomes law.

Ariel told the Israeli media that the bill is the first of many that would strengthen Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank and its ability to annex the area.

The West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria, is under Israeli military rule.

“The government of Israel does not discriminate against Israeli citizens that live in Judea and Samaria,” Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat of the Likud Party said during discussion of the bill.

Swiss report: Museums should investigate Nazi-era art

A Swiss government report has concluded that the country’s museums should more intensively investigate whether they hold artwork looted during the Nazi era.

The report, published this week by the Federal Culture Office, summarizes the results of a survey of 551 Swiss museums on the state of their provenance research, according to the Claims Conference, the main Jewish organization on restitution issues.

The Swiss government commissioned the survey in 2008, in advance of the of the 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague. The outcome of the conference is also summarized in the newly released report.

The report of the survey’s results found that information and awareness of the issue of Nazi-looted art should be improved in public and private museums; that museums need to intensify provenance research; and that access to the results of provenance research should be simplified.

Of the 416 museums that responded to the survey, 25 stated that works in the possession of their institutions may be affected by the issue of Nazi-looted art, while 43 reported that they had undertaken provenance research on works owned by their institutions.

Some 108 museums established after 1945 indicated that they have not conducted any provenance research.

At the end of the Prague conference, Switzerland was one of 47 countries that signed the Terezin Declaration, which included a commitment to continue working on this issue

The Nazis looted an estimated 650,000 art and religious items from Jews and other victims, according to the Claims Conference.

Arts in L.A. Calendar June — August


Thu., June 12
“The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company.” The ragtag band of tech-geeks who created such enormously successful hits as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Ratatouille” are dissected and discussed in David A. Price’s book about the high-minded company and its rags-to-riches success in filmmaking. At his appearance, Price will share behind-the-scenes stories about the animation studio dreamed up during a power lunch. 7:30 p.m. Free. Barnes and Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. (310) 260-9110.

Sat., June 14
Beastly Ball at the Los Angeles Zoo. Monkeys and hippos and tigers, oh my! The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) is, for the 38th year in a row, throwing its annual animal-filled shebang in support of the educational and conservation of endangered animal programs subsidized and run by the Los Angeles Zoo. No small get-together, GLAZA’s event is expected to be one of the hottest parties of the year, including special tours of the zoo, high-end catering, various forms of live musical entertainment and a silent auction with phenomenal items. Ever wonder what really happens in the jungle at night? Here is your chance to find out! 6 p.m. $1,000. Los Angeles Zoo, 5333 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 644-4708.

Sat., June 14
Toy Theatre Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Devoted to giving all genres of stimulating art a place to shine, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is hosting a festival recognizing the talents of numerous international toy puppeteers. A delightful treat for both adults and children, Toy Theatre is a production that encompasses two-dimensional rod puppets in mini-theatres that date back to the early 19th century. Adaptations of such classics as “Alice in Wonderland” are only a few of the many enthralling performances that will be taking place over the course of this two-day event. 10 a.m-6 p.m. Through June 15. Free. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-8500.

Mon., June 16
Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. With documentaries becoming some of the most talked-about films on the silver screen today, the Silverdocs festival is one of the hottest film fests in town. This year’s opening-night film, “All Together Now,” follows the powerful panoply of creative talent that makes up the Cirque du Soleil production of “Love” at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The closing-night film, “Theater of War,” also takes a look at the behind-the-scenes creation of a different theatrical production — The Public Theater’s 2006 performance of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play “Mother Courage and Her Children” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Sandwiched between these two films are many other screen-worthy documentaries. Through June 23. $10 (general admission). For a full listing of films, visit

Tue., June 17
“The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.” Mother-and-son science writing duo, Sandra and Matt Blakeslee, will explore how the brain connects with your body parts, movements, space, actions and emotions of others during the ALOUD Science Series on Seeing and Being. Find out how the brain directly links to your body’s health and susceptibility to disease. Engage in conversation with science writer and author Margaret Wertheim on how your mind knows where your body ends and the outside world begins. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Mark Taper Auditorium at Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. (310) 657-5511.

Wed., June 25
“Zocalo at the Skirball: The Oracle in the Gut.” New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer will discuss surprising and fascinating research that makes E. coli more than just a deadly bacteria in fast food. The Skirball hosts the popular Los Angeles cultural forum, Zocalo, in this discussion of how the Escherichia coli microbe has had a significant role in the history of biology and continues to advance the search for life-saving medicine, clean fuel and a greater understanding of our own genetic makeup. The lecture, subtitled “E. Coli and the Meaning of Life,” is part of a quarterly Zocalo at the Skirball series of engaging expert-led talks on some of today’s most pressing subjects. 7:30 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. strongly recommended. (213) 403-0416.

Fri., June 27
“American Tales.” Mark Twain and Herman Melville, two of the most notable writers in American history, will be brought to life in a musical performance, “American Tales,” directed by Thor Steingraber. Los Angeles’ Classical Theater Ensemble, the Antaeus Company, is kicking off this year’s eight-week ClassicFest with “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” an adaptation of Twain’s comic look at the telephone — one of the world’s most valuable inventions. Meeting by chance through crossed telephone lines, Alonzo from Maine and Rosannah from California develop an instant love connection. Playing off broken and mended connections, “American Tales” brings in Melville’s tragic story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Catch the play’s world premiere along with workshops and readings of classic plays featured throughout the festival. 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Through August 17. $25. Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 762-2773.

Sat., June 28
“Cover Version.” This innovative exhibition is the result of a challenge New York-based artist Timothy Hull posed to 20 other artists from around the country: design the cover of your favorite book. Turning the aphorism “Don’t judge a book by its cover” on its ear, this clever analysis demonstrates quite the opposite — that a book’s cover is actually indicative of its emotional and intellectual resonance and becomes something of a cultural icon. In the same vein as musicians reinterpreting canonical songs by “covering” them, these artists reify and re-imagine the cultural import of such classics as “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and “The Book of Mormon,” among others. 6 -9 p.m. (opening reception), 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tue.-Sat.). Through Aug. 10. Free. Taylor De Cordoba, 2660 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 559-9156.

Sat., June 28
Heidi Duckler Collage Dance Theatre: “A Guide to an Exhibitionist.” Triple-billed as a gallery opening, live performance and party, Duckler’s latest site-specific work explores nudity, still-life and the colors framing the space in a performance that ponders the relationship between artist, audience and the physical space in which these three elements intimately collide. 7 p.m. (performances every 30 minutes until 9 p.m.) $25 (includes wine and cheese reception). Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 784-8669.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, June 24
Legendary folk singer, poet and ladies’ man, Leonard Cohen, makes a rare appearance at the Ford Amphitheatre this evening for a tribute in his honor. The event coincides with this week’s Los Angeles release of the concert film/documentary “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” and is part of the L.A. Film Festival. A screening of the film follows a live performance by Martha Wainwright.

8 p.m. $10. 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “” >

Sunday, June 25
Nostalgic for Babs in drag? USC Casden Institute’s got your back today as they revisit the classic “Yentl.” A talk by professor Pamela Nadel, titled “Rediscovering Streisand’s Yentl: From Yiddish Story to the Culture Wars,” precedes a screening.

2 p.m. (lecture), 3 p.m. (screening). $5. Warner Grand Theater, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro. R.S.V.P., (213) 740-3405.



Monday, June 26
For cultural immersion they’ll confuse for fun, take the kids to REDCAT’s International Children’s Film Festival this week. The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater showcases animated and live-action films for children from 15 countries, including the Israeli live-action short “The Red Toy,” in which a young boy plays guide through Jerusalem’s Old City.

$5 (per screening). June 24-29. Times vary. 631 W. Second St., Los Angeles. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>


Tuesday, June 27
Consider participating in the Iris Chang Memorial Essay Contest, established in March to preserve Chang’s legacy in educating the world about the atrocities of World War II in Asia. The author and historian took her own life at the age of 36, no longer able to cope with the intimate knowledge of such horror. The theme of the essay should be “How Has Iris Chang’s Book, ‘The Rape of Nanking: the Forgotten Holocaust of WWII,’ Affected My Life and Thinking?”

Submission deadline is July 31. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>


Wednesday, June 28
Finegood Gallery at the Bernard Milken Community Campus offers a well-rounded exhibition as their latest. “Elements” presents works by five female artists, with each woman exemplifying one of five graphic elements. For color, look to Adria Becker’s floral subjects. For line, view Susan Gesundheit’s watercolors. For texture, Dafna Gilboa’s landscapes resonate. For shape, see Jeanne Hahn’s collages. And for value, take in the nuances of Helen Kim’s paintings on canvas.

Through July 25. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3218

Thursday, June 29
Nonagenarian Enrico Donati has been featured before at galerie yoramgil. In fact, the gallery has made an annual project of displaying works from each decade of the artist’s career over the last six years. This month, they’ve presented a culminating event: a major retrospective of Donati’s seven decades’ worth of art, with an example piece from each series of Donati’s career. Catch “Enrico Donati: One of Each” before it closes this week.

Through June 30. 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-2641.

Friday, June 30
Warmer Shabbat nights are upon us, so head to the beach to commune with God and maybe some dolphins. Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue hosts Summer Sunset Services in the sand, tonight. Bring a picnic dinner, something to sit on and a sweatshirt in case it gets chilly.

Also July 14 and 28. 7 p.m. Westward Beach, Westward Beach Road, Malibu. (310) 456-2178.

Sondheim Knows How to Book ‘Em

Some people begin collecting because they’ve coveted certain objects for as long as they can remember. Others collect as an investment. And, of course, there are poseurs who hire prestige dealers to buy them trendy art because they want to be viewed as taste mavens.

Harry Sondheim, a retired criminal prosecutor for the L.A. County D.A.’s office, started to collect Judaica for none of those reasons. He was traveling in Holland when he simply noticed an artifact that appealed to him: “They had a museum, Der Weg, which means the Weighing House. They had an artist named Bicart. I bought some postcards with depictions of Jewish ceremonies on them. You can’t buy those postcards any longer.”

Reflecting his legal training, Sondheim answers questions methodically. Even his decision to focus on rare books, as opposed to art, shows a judicious attitude.

“It’s pretty hard to falsify a book,” he said, adding, “they’re not as likely to be stolen. If you have a thief in the house, they’re more likely to steal a silver menorah.”

Maybe it matters, too, that Sondheim attended the University of Chicago in the era when that institution still featured the Great Books courses.

Sondheim will be speaking at the 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair’s “Collecting Your Roots” panel on Sunday, Feb. 19.

He especially likes rare manuscripts that include illustrations or, as he says, “depictions” of Jewish ceremonies and customs.

Sondheim has never taken a vacation specifically to collect books, but has purchased manuscripts at synagogues, museums and bookstores around the world, including Germany, where he can trace his genealogy back to around 1760. His family fled Germany in 1938, several months before Kristallnacht. The tomes he favors are typically printed in German, their existence all the more remarkable because of the Nazis’ program of burning Jewish books.

The best deal he ever got was a work by Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jewish artist from the first half of the 20th century who specialized in political caricatures and miniature painting. Given Sondheim’s background in the law, it is not surprising that he bought the “Statut of Kalisz.” The book is Szyk’s interpretation of a 13th-century manuscript that has been called the “Jewish Magna Carta,” a decree by which a Polish king gave Jews civil rights. Szyk illustrated the manuscript while also relating the statute to some other events in Jewish history.

“One page shows different occupations a Jew might have had, weaving, baking, a cobbler,” Sondheim said. “I acquired that at a reasonable price, around $17,000. Someone else’s copy was recently auctioned off for $64,000.”

Sondheim does not use eBay though he’ll search through an auction house’s Web site, which he calls “the equivalent of having their catalog.”

Collecting, he says, is “a sort of continuum. There are pictures of chuppahs from hundreds of years ago, and you have chuppahs today. You live the present through the past.”

The 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, from Friday, Feb. 17 through Sunday, Feb. 19. Harry Sondheim will speak at the “Collecting Your Roots” panel, a free seminar, on Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, call (800) 454-6401.


Artful Solution to Nazi Looting

After six years of litigation and diplomatic battles over Nazi-looted art, in a legal case stretching from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Vienna and back, the Austrian government has agreed with Maria Altmann, an 89-year old widow, to let arbitration decide who now owns masterpieces that once belonged to her family.

At stake are six works painted by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, valued at $150 million and considered treasures of early 20th-century art.

The most famous among them is a gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a member of a prominent Viennese Jewish family and the aunt of Altmann, a Cheviot Hills resident.

In 1938, the paintings were confiscated by the Nazis and eventually ended up at the Austrian National Gallery, where they are on display.

A major break in the litigation came last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected pleas by both the Austrian and American governments and ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court.

The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light,” said E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s lawyer, and encouraged the country to consent to arbitration, which Schoenberg had first proposed in 1999.

Under the agreement, announced May 18, both sides have appointed one representative, who will jointly name a third member to the arbitration panel. All three will be Austrian legal experts, who are to render a nonappealable decision by Nov. 1.

The longtime court opponents reacted to the new agreement, hammered out over the last two months, with considerable relief.

“I feel very good that the case will finally be resolved, after waiting, waiting and waiting some more,” Altmann said. “We could have had this result six years ago, when I wrote a letter to the Austrian authorities offering just such a resolution, but they never even sent a response.”

Altmann said she had complete confidence in the fairness of the Austrian arbitration panel. She indicated that if the decision goes her way, she would not insist on the physical return of all the paintings, but consider a monetary settlement.

Martin Weiss, the Austrian consul general in Los Angeles, hailed the agreement as heralding “a very good day.”

He and attorney Scott P. Cooper, representing the Austrian government, expressed satisfaction that the case will be decided in Austria and under Austrian, rather than American, law.

The arbitration panel will have to resolve two key points: The first is whether, under conflicting wills written by the Bloch-Bauers, the paintings rightly belong to Austria or to Altmann. The second is how a 1998 Austrian law on restitution of Nazi-looted art applies to this case.

The Austrian decision to submit to arbitration could have considerable impact on other countries. Many of their museums have been reluctant to settle cases of paintings in their possession that were originally taken by Nazis from their Jewish owners outright, or through forced sales.

A current case involves a painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro hanging in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The painting was sold by a German-Jewish family under Nazi pressure for a fraction of its value.

For five years, Claude Cassirer, 84, of San Diego, a descendant of the painting’s former Jewish owners, has sought the painting’s return.

Spain will host an international Conference on Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance on June 8 in Cordoba, and advocates for Cassirer are hoping to draw wider attention to the dispute over the Pissarro painting.

“The government of Spain would be well advised to follow the Austrian model,” Schoenberg said. “The claimants are getting very old and it is unconscionable to drag out the cases any longer.”


Destination: Strasbourg

It’s not every day a grown woman gets her cheeks pinched by another woman who’s tickled pink to see her eating, but then Yvonne Haller is no ordinary French restaurateur.

She’s one of the handful of honorary Jewish mothers — actually elegantly coifed and no doubt WASPy grande dames — who make the winstubs (wine bars) of Strasbourg so special; even heads of state gather to discuss business at their crowded trestle tables rather than somewhere more private.

Chez Yvonne has hosted European leaders, while members of the rock group, Radiohead, were equally unlikely guests at Le Clou, round the corner. These convivial hostelries and dozens like them provide a disarmingly homely counterpoint to the grave institutions that bring so many suits — politicians, lawyers and lobbyists — to the European city.

Perhaps the haimish ambiance is the result of Jewish influence — the community may have been decimated during the war, but Alsace has a phenomenally strong Jewish heritage reaching far beyond city limits. More than 200 historic sites document a shtetl system to rival Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the region was home to half of France’s Jews. All but a quarter were wiped out by the Nazis, but Strasbourg remains a Jewish haven thanks to an influx of Sephardim from North Africa who have been enthusiastically embraced by the remaining Ashkenazim.

The blood link makes a visit to one of the prettiest parts of France particularly resonant for the Jewish visitor, who will find antique synagogue furnishings of magnificent quality in Strasbourg’s exquisite Musee Alsacien. There are also a host of other museums, synagogues and other testaments to Jewish life across the region.

Strasbourg, which has a host of magnificent museums, houses medieval Jewish tombstones in its Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame; there is also a third-century mikvah that can be visited, the inevitable Rue des Juifs and two restaurants specializing in Jewish Alsatian cuisine. Although the magnificent Gothic synagogue was destroyed by the Germans in 1940, many beautiful shuls (Moorish in Thann, neoclassical in Haguenau, neoromanesque in Struth) still stand in the countryside, notably the 1791 temple in Pfaffenhoffen with its matzah oven and superb painted ark.

Even without the Jewish sites and heritage tours on offer, Alsace would be a delight and Strasbourg its crown jewel. The most decorated city in France, where every wooden surface seems to be exquisitely carved, every piece of cloth embroidered, every wineglass etched and every piece of pottery hand-painted, the riot of ornament somehow comes across as far from sweet, more a celebration of life.

To get an overview, take immediately to the water; bateaux-mouches (river boats) await in front of the Palais Rohan, where a teenage Marie-Antoinette came to be married. You will float through the picturesque ancient quarter of La Petite France into the handsome harbor and upriver to see the breathtaking buildings that are Strasbourg’s modern raison d’etre — the elliptically elegant European Parliament and swirly, swaggering Court of Human Rights designed by Richard Rodgers.

Once off the boat, your first stop in the engrossing Old Town should be the world’s prettiest and most engaging cathedral. Reminiscent of a pink wedding cake on the outside, the interior boasts a magnificent 16th-century astronomical clock whose 12:30 p.m. performance is not to be missed. The clock portal outside the cathedral is remarkable, too, not the least because it is flanked on one side by a piece of ancient synagogue statuary. Around the cathedral lies a warren of streets rich in winstubs and fine shops. The best shop for regional products is the large emporium on the square where you disembark the bateaux-mouches, lying in wait for the discerning tourists with fine linens, painted cookware and the carved iron for which the region is also famous.

Strasbourg is rich in well-priced, comfortable hostelries like the Tulip Inn-Hannong, where elegant rooms range from $60 to $125 per night. In a smart shopping street only a five-minute stroll from the Old Town, it offers a quieter alternative to the Maison Kammerzell, a hotel-restaurant famous for its ornate medieval exterior, and other lodgings close to the cathedral.

Although there is enough in the city to command a dedicated weekend trip, it would be a shame to miss the riches of the surrounding region. Colmar is another handsome town packed with fine museums and Jewish heritage sites. The Musee Bartholdi, dedicated to the creator of the Statue of Liberty, contains a collection of artifacts and works amassed by the Historical and Contemporary Jewish Art Fund, but the town’s most justly famous museum is the Unterlinden, a former Dominican convent with 13th-century cloister, packed with fabulous mediaeval art and a famous altarpiece.

Like Strasbourg, a river runs through it, and it’s delightful to have lunch by the water during summer; head for the Tanners’ District and Little Venice. Although Colmar does have a luxurious riverside hotel, it is more pleasant yet to stay in one of the surrounding villages on Alsace’s delightful Route des Vins.

While picnics are a good reason to summer in Alsace’s rolling hills, December is when the region, famous for its Christmas markets, is at its most atmospheric and entrancing. Strasbourg’s festive lights are simply unforgettable.