About halfway through the new movie Woman in Gold–which tells the story of Maria Altmann’s lengthy legal battle to recover the famous Klimt painting of her aunt from the Austrian government–the parties try to resolve the dispute by mediation. At the mediation, Altmann (played by Helen Mirren) offers to allow the Austrians to keep the painting if they will only acknowledge that it was stolen property (looted from her family by the Nazis), and pay some amount in compensation. It was a framework for negotiations that most mediators would jump at, because if the framework were accepted by the other side, the only thing left to negotiate would have been the amount of compensation. But the Austrian representative refuses even to consider admitting that the painting was stolen, and Maria and her young attorney walk out of the negotiation.
At that point, Altmann’s side felt fairly confident of their legal position. Their main risk was that Maria would not live long enough to see the legal battle through. So they agreed to arbitration in Austria. After the arbitration was decided in their favor, the same Austrian representative attempted to re-instate a version of the deal discussed at the mediation. Too late, says Maria. She now feels so abused by the Austrian government’s resistance to her claim, and its repeated refusals to negotiate, that she is determined that the painting must travel to America, as she was forced to do herself many years earlier.
A nice example of how opportunities to resolve conflict at mediation are often squandered, and how litigation opens old wounds and makes problems more difficult to resolve in a consensual manner. And how winners are not usually magnanimous in victory. Rightly so, it would seem in this case. So what was the value of mediation in a do-or-die case like this one? At the very least it reminded the victors that they had made a reasonable settlement offer that the other side should have accepted. That experience justified Altmann’s refusal to make any concessions to her adversary after her victory.