Not two days before I left for New York, I watched the Woman in Gold. The 2015 film, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, recounts the tale of Gustave Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I". I had never heard this story before watching the movie, but at the end I was captivated. Even more so, when the credits said the painting is currently being housed in a gallery in New York City. I made up my mind then and there...I was going to see Adele. For me, standing in front of piece of history, like the Klimt painting, is otherworldly. I cannot express in words how it makes me feel to stand in front of something that has seen so much history, and has been in the hands of so many. I stare at her gold and silver portrait, worth over a hundred million dollars, and wonder what this painting has seen in it's lifetime. Prosperity, genocide, greed, hate, admiration, love...if only Adele could speak to me.
The "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" has being housed near the Met at the Neue Galerie, dedicated to German and Austrian art, since July 2006. But the story of this Klimt painting began far before the painting ended up on the 5th Avenue, being owned by billionaire, cosmetic heir, Ronald Lauder. It begins in the early 1900's in Vienna, Austria in the home of a wealthy Jewish family.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was born in Vienna in 1881 and was the youngest daughter of the seven children of the banker Moritz Bauer and Jeannette Bauer née Honig. In late December 1899, she married industrialist Ferdinand Bloch, who was seventeen years her senior. In the Summer of 1903, Ferdinand asked Klimt to paint his wife’s portrait, intending it to be a present for her parents’ anniversary in October. The portrait was exhibited in public in 1907. In 1919, after the couple moved to their new grand palace opposite the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Adele erected a shrine dedicated to Klimt in her chambers, but after her death in 1925 the "Klimt Hall" became a shrine to Adele. In 1938, following the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, the paintings owned by the Bloch-Bauer family were stolen by the Nazis, including the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I".
Austria had long claimed that Ms. Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925, left the portrait to the country in her will. But records showed that the artwork clearly belonged to her husband, Ferdinand, who fled his homeland in 1938. And he had left his entire estate to his heirs, one of whom was his niece Maria Altmann, when he died in 1945.
It wasn't until 1998 that Hubertus Czernin, the Austrian investigative journalist, established that the Galerie Belvedere, which was housing the Adele painting, contained several works stolen from Jewish owners in the war. The gallery had refused to return the art to their original owners or to even acknowledge a theft had taken place. Maria Altmann, who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in the 1940s and moved to the United States, hired the lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg to make a claim against the gallery for the return of five works by Klimt.
Maria, who was Adele’s family heir, ended up suing the Republic of Austria, demanding that the Klimt paintings be returned to her. Still, the newly created Austrian restitution panel denied Ms. Altmann’s claim. It wasn’t until 2006, after the United States Supreme Court cleared the way for Ms. Altmann to sue the Austrian government, that an agreement was reached. The Republic of Austria and Maria Altmann agreed to end their litigation in U.S. District Court and submitted the dispute to binding arbitration by a panel of three Austrian judges in Austria. In January 2006 the arbitration resulted in the award of the paintings to Maria Altmann. After over 60 years, the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" was returned to her family.
Today, the heartbreaking truth is that more than 100,000 stolen works of art are still unaccounted for. Yet there seems to be an international effort underway to identify Nazi plunder that still remains unaccounted for, with the aim that the pieces will ultimately be returned to the rightful owners, their families or their respective countries.