Peter Altmann drove a Pierce Transit bus for 12 years, spent another dozen as a supervisor and thought his life was good.
He had a small house on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma next to a 7-Eleven and drove an 82 Lincoln because he liked it. He was even looking into buying a 24-foot boat, used.
Then, in 2006, Altmanns 90-year-old mother won a David vs. Goliath case against the country of Austria, ending nearly a decade of legal wrangling to have five Nazi-stolen works of art returned to her family.
Among the five Gustav Klimt paintings were two portraits of Maria Altmanns aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in the early 1900s. Theyd hung in her familys Austria home until the Nazis seized them in the late 30s.
No one who survived the Holocaust liked talking about it, Peter Altmann said in an interview last week. It wasnt a common topic of conversation, but over the years I got enough of the story to put it together.
Altmann hasnt told the story publicly very often, but he shared it last week with a News Tribune columnist and with an audience at Pacific Lutheran University. He was the keynote speaker Thursday at PLUs Holocaust Conference.
The story includes his late parents, Fritz and Maria, escaping Austria with the clothes on their backs. For the rest of her life, his mother kept a stocking torn on barbed wire as a memento.
The Nazis wanted the Jews out they hadnt yet come up with the Final Option, Altmann said. So once my parents were out, they were able to have household items shipped to them. If the Nazis thought it was of value, they kept it.
Among the items the family got was a photo from Fritz and Marias wedding, and the top hat Fritz wore for the ceremony. Two years ago, when Altmann married Donna, he wore that same hat.
His mother, however, never forgot the loss of those Klimt paintings. When the Austrian government opened its files in 1998, a journalist there found evidence that the museum showing the paintings had no legal right to them.
Maria Altmann, by then a widow running a Los Angeles boutique out of her home, filed a lawsuit one that would eventually take her to the U.S. Supreme Court and to a three-judge panel in Austria.
The Austrians fought her. And lost.
My mothers first choice was to have them stay in Austria if the museum would simply settle with her, said Altmann, now 66. They wouldnt, so she fought them, won and had the paintings displayed in a Los Angeles museum. Mom really wanted Aunt Adeles portrait to hang in a museum.
Six months after obtaining the paintings, Maria Altmann was offered $135 million for one of them by Ronald Lauder, son of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. The purchase included Lauders promise that the painting would hang in a New York museum, the Neue Galerie.
The other four paintings sold at auction for $191 million.
My mother didnt want anything for herself. When the paintings sold, she still drove her 92 Ford Taurus, Peter Altmann said. My brother had it repainted a gold color instead of brown and we called it the Klimt Mobile.
The money was divided among the surviving family members of the paintings original owner, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.
His will stipulated Maria Altmann and her four children receive 25 percent of the estate. Another 25 percent went to the children of her late brother and 50 percent to the children of her late sister.
The money, after taxes and a few years in a trust, was staggering.
My mom bought new homes for my three siblings, but I didnt really want one I loved the house on Sixth Avenue, Altmann said. She kept saying You have to get something.
And he thought: a boat.
I designed a boat with a friend, everything Id ever thought about in one, Altmann said. Its a 33-footer we named MutSea. My mothers nickname was Mutzy, so we changed it a bit to fit the boat.
Mut in German means courage.
After he married in 2010, Altmann realized his wife wasnt as comfortable as he was living next to a 7-Eleven. They looked for a new home.
We looked around the north end of Tacoma for six months, because I liked the area. Then I thought, why have a water view? Why not a waterfront? Altmann said. We found a home on Day Island.
Maria Altmann died in 2011, near her 95th birthday. There are three documentaries on her life and legal battle with Austria, and the BBC this year is producing a movie about her.
The first thing one sees upon entering the front door of Peter and Donna Altmanns home is a copy of the Klimt painting that made the house possible Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
Since my mothers death, the four kids all get together when we can, Altmann said. And we all feel lucky and blessed. We did nothing to get the money. We toast Mutzy all the time.
Her determination to right a wrong was extraordinary.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638