Published: July 18, 2006
“Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” Gustav Klimt’s iconlike portrait of a Viennese society beauty whose perfect oval face floats above a glimmering pool of gold, went on public display on July 13 at New York’s Neue Galerie, where it remains through September 18.
Thought to be the world’s most expensive painting, the Jugendstil masterwork completed in 1907 has already been compared by some to both Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in importance. The Los Angeles Times called the painting a “destination work – the kind one travels just to see” when it was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this spring. The Neue Galerie is hoping that New Yorkers and other visitors from around the world will agree.
Accompanying “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” – which is in Klimt’s much sought-after Golden Style, inspired by the artist’s 1903 visit to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy – are four other paintings by Klimt (1862-1918), among them three landscapes rendered in the fractured, densely patterned style for which the artist is known.
All five were commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy art collector who fled Austria in 1938, leaving the paintings behind. Two of the canvases, along with hundreds of preparatory drawings, depict Bloch-Bauer’s young wife, who died a decade after she was painted, willing her share of the couple’s estate to her husband. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer died in Switzerland in 1945, leaving the paintings to his niece Maria Altmann and her two siblings. In 1923, two years before her death and 15` years before the Nazis annexed Austria, Adele Bloch-Bauer expressed a wish that the paintings eventually go to the Austrian state. The preference was not legally binding, courts in both the United States and Austria ultimately concluded.
At the center of a lengthy restitution dispute, theBloch-Bauer paintings spent most of the past 60 years at theBelvedere, an early Eighteenth Century Viennese palace housing theAustrian national collection of Baroque through Twentieth CenturyArt.
In January 2006, after the US Supreme Court decided in favor of the Bloch-Bauer family and an Austrian panel unanimously upheld the decision, the paintings were awarded to 90-year-old Maria Altmann, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past half century, and her heirs.
Last month, Ronald S. Lauder – the cosmetics tycoon, art collector and former ambassador to Austria – bought “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for the Neue Gallery, the museum of modern Austrian and German art and design that he founded in Manhattan with the late dealer and collector Serge Sabarsky. The price of the painting, which sold privately in a transaction brokered by Christie’s, was reportedly $135 million, surpassing the $104.1 million paid at Sotheby’s in 2004 for Picasso’s “Boy With A Pipe.”
“I was a teenager in Vienna when I first saw ‘Adele,'” said Neue Galerie director Renee Price. “It’s a great painting and Adele was a great patron of the arts. She believed very strongly in Gustav Klimt. I believe this is what Adele would have wanted for her art.” Price acknowledged the efforts of those who helped bring the paintings to the United States, singling out for special mention Hubertus Czernin, a Viennese journalist who, researching the case for The Boston Globe, found documents supporting the Bloch-Bauer family’s position.
“These paintings stolen from Jewish homes are the last prisoners of World War II. I believe more art will be returned to its rightful owners,” said Lauder, a champion of Jewish causes who first who met Maria Altmann nearly a decade ago.
“Adele was a woman of the future who lived in the past. She surrounded herself with people of science and art,” said Altmann, recalling turn-of-the-century intellectual life in Vienna, a city that produced Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Ludwig Wttgenstein.
“I remember Adele quite well. She always wore a long whitedress and carried a long cigarette holder,” added Adele’s niece,who was born into the wealthy Viennese family in 1916. In 1999,Altmann engaged attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of Austriancomposer Arnold Schoenberg and a partner in Burris & Schoenbergin Los Angeles, to represent her efforts to recover the paintings,a fight that continued for seven years. The family later retainedart attorney Steven Thomas of Irell & Manella in Los Angeles.His efforts helped lead to the Klimt exhibitions in Los Angeles andNew York as well as the Neue Galerie transaction.
The Neue Galerie’s gain was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s loss.
“We put together a substantial offer but it wasn’t enough to buy all five works. The paintings are here at the Neue Galerie through September, four of them for sale,” Stephanie Barron, LACMA’s senior curator of modern art, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
Of the display, which visitors on both coasts have found provocative and deeply affecting, Barron said, “It represents the best and the worst of the Twentieth Century. The paintings are the best; the fact that they were stolen, the worst.”
Contacted by Antiques and The Arts Weekly, Christie’s spokesman Bendetta Roux declined comment on the status of negotiations on the remaining paintings. Nevertheless, for some fortunate buyer, “Adele Bloch-Bauer II,” a 1912 portrait in translucent orchid, violet, periwinkle and teal, is only slightly less compelling than its gilded counterpart.
Housed in a 1914 Carrere & Hastings mansion once owned by Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the Neue Gallery is at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street. For information, 212-628-6200 or www.neuegalerie.org.
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