Glittering Prize

The world-record sale in June 2006 of this Gustav Klimt portrait marked the culmination of its sensational journey from the salons of Vienna to an LA auction room, via the hands of Nazi looters. Alix Kirsta traces its story and meets the woman who fought to reclaim her inheritance

Adele Block-Bauer I Adele Block-Bauer I
1907, oil, silver and gold on canvas

An exhibition at the Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Upper East Side that opens next Thursday [June 2006] is already guaranteed to be New York's most talked-about and potentially important art event of the year. The much-publicised 'Bloch-Bauer collection' features only five paintings by Gustav Klimt, but will attract huge crowds.

Its centrepiece, an elaborately gold-embellished 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, has long been an icon of 20th-century art, as celebrated and widely reproduced as Klimt's best-known work The Kiss. Acquired several weeks ago for $135 million (£73 million) by the museum's founder and president, the cosmetics heir and billionaire Ronald Lauder, it is the world's most expensive painting, and was until recently at the centre of a sensational case about Nazi-looted art. Its journey to New York was the end of 68 years of injustice. Yet among the thousands of visitors expected to crowd into the museum's wood-panelled gallery, how many will be aware of the story that lies behind Klimt's masterpieces?


When an arbitration court in Vienna ruled this January that Vienna's state-owned Belvedere Gallery must return five Klimt paintings to Maria Altmann, now living in California and the last direct relative of their original owner Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, restitution experts around the world reacted with joy and disbelief. The case of Altmann vs the Republic of Austria was a highly publicised and bitter legal battle which intrigued the art world for more than seven years. It was a classic David and Goliath confrontation that many dismissed as unwinnable. But a federal court in California (and ultimately the US Supreme Court) ruled that Altmann could sue the Republic of Austria in the US courts for the return of the paintings, stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. When the Austrian government claimed immunity as a sovereign nation, its case was turned down. Confronted with a full US trial in November 2005, Austria agreed to arbitration and appointed Austrian arbitrators.

Altmann's victory in January was a bad day for Austria, whose government officials had gone to astonishing lengths to avoid returning the Bloch-Bauer Klimts, which since the war the Belvedere Gallery had treated as their own. It was the costliest return of looted art by Austria since the introduction of its 1998 Art Restitution Act: the five Klimts together were then estimated to be worth $300 million or more. Losing the Klimts was about more than money; it was a bitter blow to Austria's pride and heritage. Gustav Klimt, within his lifetime the country's most celebrated artist, has remained an Austrian icon; his sensuous, intricate work represents a unique era in Austrian art. Responses to the court's decision were mixed, and controversy over the 'Bloch-Bauer affair' still rages in Vienna's art galleries and cafes.

Although Maria Altmann and her co-heirs (the four children of her late sister and brother) have proved their claim, many art experts are outraged that the Klimts were allowed to leave Vienna, arguing that the government should have struck a deal with the family to keep some or all of them. In January, the director of the Belvedere Gallery, Gerbert Frodl, expressed 'extraordinary regret that the Republic did not purchase the pictures for Austria'. According to Austria's Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, Austria just couldn't afford it. 'We are simply unable to buy back the paintings. Further negotiations are pointless,' he recently stated. The culture minister Elisabeth Gehrer's last word on the subject was on February 2. 'Seventy million euros amounts to the whole budget for all museums in Austria. This means we are not financially able to make purchases here.' On the first weekend in February, more than 8,000 visitors crowded into the Belvedere for a final glimpse of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts. The next day they were taken off the walls, crated and shipped to America, where they were exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Despite her joy at reclaiming the paintings she grew up with in pre-war Vienna, Maria Altmann, now 90, remains philosophical about her victory. A few weeks before the Klimts were auctioned, we met at her house in a quiet, residential area of Los Angeles, a modest but comfortable bungalow in which she has lived for 30 years. Tall, elegant, still strikingly attractive, Altmann admitted that she had always felt her claim was a long shot.

'I never felt there was a good chance I would win,' she explained in a strong Viennese accent. 'And I wouldn't have been desperate if we had lost: there was no life threatened, it was justice and money, and justice came first. I persisted out of a desire that Austria should see there is such a thing as justice. Morally, this is a gain, not a loss for Austria.' She is astonished that she has become a symbol for Holocaust survivors with pending restitution claims. 'I'm not somebody who ever wanted to be a symbol of anything. I don't want attention. But I was pleased and surprised to hear that when they announced the court's verdict on Viennese radio, groups of people in a coffee house started clapping.'

Public view

With its traditional furnishings, her home retains an air of old-style Viennese gemütlichkeit; on the walls are sketches of Austrian villages and paintings of her relatives; there is a display of 17th- and 18th-century watches and a 20-year-old poster of Klimt's golden Adele hangs in the sitting-room. Discovering that I am part-Viennese, Altmann occasionally broke into German, recalling the cavalier attitude of government officials.

'I originally hoped the paintings would remain on public view in Vienna after they were returned to me. When I first made my claim, I was invited to a conference in Vienna where I met the director of the Belvedere. He begged me: "Take the landscapes, we have plenty of them, just don't take the portraits." So I wrote them a letter saying I would see to it that the gold portrait would not leave Vienna, but we would have to talk about it and come to a financial solution. I made them a very generous offer.' That was in 1999. She received no reply. 'I was 83. Don't you think an old lady deserves an answer, purely out of politeness?'

Despite her newfound prosperity, she doesn't intend to move house or to trade in her ageing Chevrolet for a luxury model. As a hardworking mother of four in the late 1940s, she began selling knitwear from home and then opened a small Beverly Hills boutique which she ran until four years ago. Her money will go to her children and grandchildren and towards supporting Jewish communities in the US, Austria and Israel, and the Los Angeles Opera. But she emphasised that this case was not solely about material possessions.

'It was the truth. Historically, the Austrians have always been utterly charming, at every social level, but they can as easily be disgusting.' What matters to her is that in confronting its tainted past, Austria must also acknowledge the long-forgotten historical and cultural significance of Austrian families such as hers, who were persecuted and murdered. Above all, she wants to re-establish the truth about the Bloch-Bauer legacy. Despite the legal and financial aspects of her victory, a far more significant feature of this case is the richness of its cultural history, and the fact that Altmann, the last witness of a vanished era, has seen a century of her own family's story, with its joys and horrors, come full circle.

Fading Empire

In the last days of the fading Hapsburg Empire, the two branches of the Bloch-Bauer family were among Vienna's most cultured and influential citizens. The youngest of five children, Maria was born in 1916. 'My father's brother, Ferdinand Bloch, married my mother's sister, Adele Bauer: two Bauer sisters married two Bloch brothers. When my aunt and mother's brothers both died, the names Bloch and Bauer were amalgamated to preserve the Bauer name. Adele became a "double aunt", by blood and marriage,' Altmann explained.

Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was the president and co-owner of Austria's largest sugar refinery. He also assembled one of the biggest, most valuable collections of 17th-century porcelain and 19th-century Austrian art. Adele, who inherited a fortune from her father, a banker, was a champion of contemporary 'Jugendstil' artists and the even more radical Secessionist movement, founded in 1898 by Gustav Klimt. The rumour that Klimt and Adele had a 12-year affair has never been proved, although in 1986 an American psychiatrist who met Adele's personal maid and her physician said both had confirmed the relationship. Klimt's art yields tantalising clues: Adele was the only society woman whose portrait he painted twice (the opulent golden portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, dubbed 'Austria's Mona Lisa', took three years to complete and involved almost 200 preparatory drawings); she is also portrayed semi-nude in his blatantly erotic work Judith and Holofernes. On her neck is the same jewel-encrusted choker, a present from Ferdinand, worn in the golden portrait. Art experts also speculate that she may be the woman in The Kiss.

Maria AltmannMaria Altmann 'I wanted it to go to a museum that is a bridge between Europe and the United States.'

Adele and Ferdinand were among Vienna's most prominent art patrons. Largely through the cultural passions of families like the Bloch-Bauers, fin de siècle Vienna rivalled Paris as a burgeoning centre of avant-garde art, music, architecture, philosophy and literature. 'My aunt and uncle lived in unimaginable luxury in a mansion where all the art, including the paintings Ferdinand commissioned from Klimt, were displayed,' she recalled. There, Adele held her famous weekly salons; guests included Gustav and Alma Mahler, Richard Strauss, the artists Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Carl Moll (Alma Mahler's stepfather), the writers Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, and the socialist politician Dr Karl Renner. Outside Prague, the Bloch-Bauers owned a large Palladian villa, Schloss Jungfer, also visited by Klimt. This, too, was full of art and antiques.

In 1925 Adele Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis, aged 43. Although Altmann was then only nine, she retains vivid memories of her aunt. 'She was a rather cold, intellectual woman who was very politically aware and became a socialist. She wasn't happy. It was an arranged marriage but she was childless, after two miscarriages and the death of a baby. I remember her as extremely elegant, tall, dark and thin. She always wore a slinky white dress and used a long, gold cigarette holder.' After Adele's death, Ferdinand turned her bedroom into a memorial. 'All the Klimts hung there and there were always freshly cut flowers. Our family went over every week for Sunday lunch, and for Easter and Christmas.' Maria's father, a lawyer, roamed art galleries advising Ferdinand on new acquisitions, and was a gifted amateur cellist. His friends the Rothschild brothers gave him their Stradivarius cello, 'because they knew it would be played by musicians. Every night we had chamber music in the house. Life in Vienna was beautiful.'

Troops marched

In December 1937 Maria married an aspiring opera singer, Fritz Altmann, in the last fashionable Jewish wedding before the Germans annexed Austria. Her uncle gave her a diamond necklace and earrings which had belonged to Adele. Then, the following March, Hitler's troops marched into Vienna. 'Church bells were ringing, there were a lot of jubilant people cheering in the streets; they didn't have the air of victims,' she observed wrily.

A week later a man in a dark suit knocked at the door of Altmann's new home while she was alone. Herr Landau was a Gestapo official; he took all her valuables, including her engagement ring and Adele's diamond necklace and earrings. These were later presented to Hitler's deputy, Hermann Goering, as a gift for his wife.

The next day her husband was arrested, imprisoned, and later deported to Dachau. 'He was held hostage there. His brother Bernhard owned a successful cashmere business in Austria, but had moved to Paris. The Nazis told him Fritz would be released if he signed over his knitwear factory to them.' Bernhard Altmann signed, and Fritz returned from Dachau several months later. All Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's assets, including the sugar refinery, his two homes and his art collection, had already been seized, and he had fled to Switzerland. In October 1938, while under house arrest, guarded by Herr Landau, the Altmanns managed to escape. They settled in Liverpool where Bernhard Altmann opened another knitwear factory, before moving to America in 1940.

By the end of the war the Altmanns were US citizens, and Maria was selling Bernhard's new US-made knitwear to support her family. In 1945 she learnt that Ferdinand had died in Zurich in November, a sad, lonely man. In his will, drawn up several weeks earlier, he named Maria and her elder sister and brother as his heirs. But, as his lawyer and friend Gustav Rinesch discovered, his property had all gone. The Vienna mansion was now the headquarters of the Austrian State Railway; shares from the sugar company held in trust under Ferdinand's name by a Swiss bank had been sold to an investor with Nazi connections; the Bloch-Bauer's Schloss Jungfer near Prague became the chief residence of Reinhard Heydrich, who ruled Czechoslovakia and helped to mastermind the 'Final Solution'. After Heydrich's assassination in 1941, other Germans plundered its treasures and after the war ended the property was sequestered by the new Czech communist government. Bloch-Bauer's art collection had been divided up; many works had been presented to Hitler, Goering and other deputies, others lay in a German depot with thousands of looted artworks earmarked for Hitler's planned museum in Linz.

'We were told later that Hitler had wanted to buy my uncle's porcelain collection but it was too expensive, so it was auctioned,' Altmann said. 'I knew everything was gone. But I was too busy with three small children, struggling to make a living, to ask where things were. There was little family contact. My sister was in Yugoslavia, where her husband was shot by the communists. My brother Robert was in Canada. In 1948 he got back a few paintings of little value, and some bits of porcelain.' Gustav Rinesch, their lawyer, reported that the heirs had no claim to the Klimts, because they had been donated to the Austrian gallery, allegedly under the terms of Adele's will. 'We didn't see her will so assumed it was so,' Altmann said.

Twisted saga

It wasn't until the late 1990s that the ugly, twisted saga of Vienna's acquisition of the Klimts began to unfold. In 1998, at an international conference in Washington on Nazi-looted property, Austria joined many other countries in signing an agreement to examine the provenance of its museum collections. Under its new Art Restitution Act, it undertook to return any stolen works to their owners. Also that year, the country's federal archives were opened to the public for the first time. In Vienna Hubertus Czernin, a 42-year-old campaigning author and publisher, unearthed once-confidential records revealing how the Bloch-Bauer Klimts became the property of the Belvedere Gallery. 'When I read those documents and others sent by my niece, who found them in old crates after my sister's death in 1998, I saw the paintings had been stolen not once, but three times: first by the Nazis and twice by the Austrians,' Altmann said. She knew it was time to act.

Czernin had published a series of articles in Austria exposing the scandal and similar cases, including the fate of the looted Rothschild collection. The crucial evidence he supplied was a copy of Adele Bloch-Bauer's will, made in 1923, two years before her death. Since the war, Belvedere officials had insisted that Adele had bequeathed the two Klimt portraits of herself and three landscapes to the gallery. In 1948 Gustav Rinesch, the heirs' lawyer, had asked to see the will but was repeatedly fobbed off with excuses that it was mislaid. Ignoring the injustices suffered by Holocaust survivors was nothing new. By barring the export of works of national heritage, the Austrian government was able to blackmail many refugees living abroad into surrendering valuable property. A claimant could get export permits for works of art only by letting the state retain its choice of many of their more valuable items. Therefore, before Rinesch could begin to reclaim some minor remnants of Ferdinand's art collection, he had to 'donate' the Klimts to the Belvedere. He was faced with threats and false assertions that the gallery had a right to the pictures under Adele's will.

As Altmann discovered, the 'bequest' was a fantasy. Adele's will was not legally binding: leaving all her property to Ferdinand, she requested only that he leave the two portraits and three landscapes to the gallery after his death. But the Klimts had been commissioned and paid for by Ferdinand and were therefore his property. As he stated during probate proceedings, he would honour Adele's request, even though it was not legally binding. He probably had every intention of doing so. In 1936 he donated a Klimt landscape, Schloss Kammer am Atersee, to the gallery. But any suggestion that after the Anschluss Ferdinand would have donated the Klimts to the Belvedere is absurd. In exile, he wrote to Oskar Kokoschka (who once painted his portrait), saying, 'I hope with all my heart to be able to recover the portraits of my darling Adele.' Altmann has no doubt that he wanted his relatives to inherit the works. 'My uncle certainly would never have donated anything to Austria after the way he had been treated.'

Paper trail

A paper-trail indicates that all Bloch-Bauer's seven Klimt paintings passed through the hands of Dr Erich Fuehrer, a Nazi lawyer appointed by the Gestapo to liquidate Ferdinand's property. Through him they eventually reached the gallery. In October 1941, Fuehrer gave the golden portrait of Adele and Klimt's Apple Tree to the Belvedere with a note signed 'Heil Hitler' in exchange for another landscape previously donated by Ferdinand. In November 1942 he sold Klimt's Beech Woods to the City of Vienna Museum, and in March 1943 Klimt's 1912 portrait of Adele was bought from him by the Belvedere. That year there was a major exhibition of all Klimt's work in Vienna, in which Adele's golden portrait was Aryanised: its new title was Woman in Gold.

What most disturbed Altmann was a 1948 letter from Dr Garzarolli, the new director of the Belvedere, to his predecessor which reveals he knew that 'even during the Nazi era an incontestable declaration of gift in favour of the State was never obtained from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.' The letter warns that 'the situation is growing into a sea-snake' and ends: 'I hope you can get me out of this not undangerous situation.' Given his exile since 1938, the idea that Ferdinand would have ever sanctioned such a gift is preposterous. And since he died in November 1945, how could they have hoped to get his signature in 1948?

In late 1998 Maria Altmann asked a young lawyer, Randol 'Randy' Schoenberg, the 32-year-old son of one of her oldest friends, to represent her. Under Austria's Art Restitution Act it seemed an unanswerable claim, legally as well as morally, but in June 1999 the claim was turned down. Austria's culture minister Elisabeth Gehrer stated publicly that the Klimts were not stolen. To Altmann, it was a slap in the face. She had met Gehrer for lunch in Vienna in 1998 the previous year, and told her Adele's will was not binding. 'She [Gehrer] reassured me she now knew this, and that I shouldn't worry.' Altmann's lawyer was also incensed. For Schoenberg, taking the case through the US courts was a huge gamble, but he was convinced the law was in their favour.

Shared history

What bound Schoenberg to the case for the next seven years, prompting him to resign from a successful law firm and to set up his own practice, is the history he shares with Altmann. The grandson of two exiled Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Zeisl, Randy Schoenberg is a third-generation member of Hollywood's community of European exiles who arrived in the 1930s. His great-grandparents, the Zeisls, perished in a death camp; his grandfather Erich Zeisl was a close friend of Maria Altmann's husband in Vienna. A reserved man, Schoenberg is a fluent German speaker and grew up sharing his family's outrage over the fate of Central Europe's Jews. 'It is extraordinary to be involved in a case of such magnitude and complexity and be so personally connected to it,' he said. As well as winning Altmann's claim against the Belvedere, he has also recently reclaimed the Bloch-Bauer family mansion and financial compensation for the shares sold by a Swiss bank. Altmann's share amounted to $2 million. The only claim which, to his dismay, he has lost, is for a sixth Klimt which will remain at the Belvedere: owned by Bloch-Bauer but not mentioned in Adele's will, it is the portrait of their friend Amalie Zuckerkandl, who perished with her daughter in Auschwitz. He believes his background has helped him stay the course.

'I think my ties to Austria and knowledge of these restitution issues, and how to tackle the Austrians' negative mentality, helped me to persevere. I don't think the average American lawyer could have done what I did.'

Altmann agreed. 'Without Randy none of this would have been possible.' Her other hero is Czernin. 'He has done far more than anybody to help us.' Altmann admitted to me last month she had no idea where the Klimts will end up. She could not dream of keeping them, owing to the prohibitive insurance and security costs. 'On the morning I heard I had won, my friend Ronald Lauder phoned and said, "Maria, I've been thinking all night and I'm going to buy all five. I have a room in the Neue Galerie that would be perfect.'' ' So far he has bought only the golden portrait, for which apparently five museums and 10 collectors made offers. Altmann is delighted that it has gone to Lauder's museum, devoted exclusively to Austrian and German Expressionist art. 'I wanted it to go to a museum that is a bridge between Europe and the United States.'

The fate of the other Klimts remains to be seen. The Viennese gallery owner John Sailer has launched a highly publicised initiative to raise funds to buy some of the works: he aims to create a cultural foundation based in the old Bloch-Bauer mansion, in honour of the family. The Belvedere is also conducting a campaign to raise awareness on its website, to inform the public about the cultural importance of the Bloch-Bauer collection and to raise support for Austria's attempt to buy the remaining pictures. When I asked Ronald Lauder if the other Klimts might eventually be purchased for the Neue Galerie, he told me, 'Perhaps.'

Back in the US, celebrations among Schoenberg and Altmann's families have been marred by un-expected sadness. One of Maria's greatest champions is no longer there to share her triumph and pass on the latest gossip. Hubertus Czernin died several weeks ago, aged 50, after a long battle with cancer. Maria Altmann arrived in Vienna for a holiday with her two teenage grandsons too late to see him. His monument may be that many Austrians will at last come to terms with half a century of denial of the past.

This article in its entirety is copyright © 2006 Alix Kirsta.
First published in the Telegraph, 10 July 2006.

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