Austrian museum takes down Klimt masterpieces

An Austrian museum on Friday ordered five precious Gustav Klimt paintings to be taken down and put in a storage depot following threats they would be destroyed. The move was recommended by the Interior Ministry, following e-mailed threats that the paintings would be destroyed to prevent them from being taken out of the country, the Belvedere Museum said.

Later Friday, police said they arrested a man. "A 50 year-old man from the province of Lower Austria owned up having sent the e-mail while being drunk," Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia said and explained that the man has been tracked down through his Internet provider.

"Now that the immediate threat for the paintings has been eliminated, it is up to the museum to decide whether the paintings will be exhibited again." Scores of visitors of the Belvedere Museum were disappointed Friday when told the paintings were taken down.

While most of the people turned around at the entrance, the few that walked in had to be content with less-known paintings by Klimt like "Farmhouse," "Poppy Seed Meadow" or "Sonja Knips." On Monday, an arbitration court suggested in a ruling that the Austrian state should return the five paintings to a Los Angeles woman who says the Nazis stole them from her Jewish family.

Austria would comply with the court's decision that the country was obligated to give the paintings to Maria Altmann under laws mandating the restitution of art objects to Holocaust victims, Culture Minister Elizabeth Gehrer said.

Altmann, 89, a retired Beverly Hills clothing boutique operator, was one of the heirs of the family that owned the paintings before the Nazis took over Austria in 1938. The paintings' estimated worth is at least US$150 million (Ђ125 million). Gehrer said her ministry was exploring ways to be able to keep at least two of the best known pictures on display in Austria, but ruled out buying them, saying there was no money for such a solution, reports the AP. N.U.