Book Review: The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor

The Fight for the Golden Adele

Restitution lawyer Randol Schoenberg, at left, with ­heiress Marie Altmann (r.); between them, Adele Bloch Bauer, as Klimt might have sketched her for his famous painting, Die Dame in Gold | Illustration: | Katharina Klein

Randol Schoenberg, Marie Altmann, Adele Bloch Bauer

Restitution lawyer Randol Schoenberg, at left, with ­heiress Marie Altmann (r.); between them, Adele Bloch Bauer, as Klimt might have sketched her for his famous painting, Die Dame in Gold | Illustration: Katharina Klein

Anne-Marie O’Connor recounts the engrossing history of Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting

It seemed particularly ironic in 2006 that, as the 150th anniversary the gala birthday of painter Gustav Klimt approached, Vienna would lose five of his greatest paintings, including the sensual icon of femininity Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which some call Austria’s Mona Lisa. This year, with a dozen museum shows devoted to his work and countless commemorative events, these paintings are sorely missed by curators and museum-goers trolling the city’s galleries.

American journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor recounts this tale in The Lady in Gold, an engrossing history of this masterpiece over the course of a tumultuous century and of the Bloch-Bauer family’s postwar battle to reclaim it from Austria in what would become the most famous case of Nazi art restitution.

The book’s first part tells the history of the painting’s genesis. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, Gustav Klimt was at the center of the city’s artistic ferment. Although Austria’s conservative aristocracy frowned on his openly erotic work, he found many champions among Jewish intellectuals and business leaders, particularly women.

“Klimt had ennobled these women from Vienna’s ‘second society,’ elevating this emerging meritocracy to an aesthetic aristocracy,” O’Connor writes. “Klimt portrayed women as individuals, without the presence of a husband, father, or children to suggest their domestic role.” This must have appealed to Adele Bloch-Bauer, the beautiful and brilliant daughter of a successful Jewish banker and teenaged bride of the much-older businessman Ferdinand Bloch; perhaps too the frisson of impropriety associated with posing for Klimt, who was said to seduce his models. Ferdinand adored Adele and in 1903, he commissioned the portrait; over time he acquired five more Klimts, and a second portrait of Adele.


The artist and the model 

Entering into the intimate relationship of artist and model, Adele may have succumbed to Klimt’s amorous advances. In addition to her two portraits, Adele may also have been the model for Klimt’s erotic portrait of Judith (1901), and possibly for the woman wrapped in the man’s golden embrace in The Kiss (1908).

Adele and Ferdinand were patrons of the Austrian Gallery at the Belvedere, whose new director wanted to make it a “showcase of new Austrian art.” Wanting their Klimt collection to be seen by the public, Adele wrote in her 1923 will, “I ask my husband, after his death, to leave my two portraits and the four landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna.” Two years later, the childless Adele died suddenly at the age of 43.

The second part of The Lady in Gold chronicles the fates of Adele’s extended circle of family and friends under the Nazi regime, whose often tragic stories sometimes veer toward melodrama in O’Connor’s breathless telling. Ferdinand escaped to Switzerland, leaving behind the family art collection. In January 1939, a vulturish crew of Austrian art curators descended on his Vienna apartment to remove artworks for Hitler’s planned Linz Museum. They left behind the Klimts since the Fuehrer did not want “degenerate” works in his collection.

But Klimt’s glittering portrait of Adele was well known to Austrians, and a Nazi lawyer made a deal to secure it for the Belvedere. In 1943, the painting was a centerpiece of an exhibition of Klimt’s works at the Secession, though the Nazi curators now called it Die Dame in Gold, or The Lady in Gold.

By 1944 the tide of war was turning against the Reich. Vienna’s museums removed their collections to castles and monasteries and the saltmines at Alt Aussee. All told, the Germans stole 20 percent of Europe’s artworks during the war, not all of which have been recovered. As the war ended, an ailing Ferdinand knew that he could never return to Vienna, so he rewrote his will leaving his estate to his nephew and two nieces, one of whom was Maria Altmann, now living in the United States. He died a few weeks later, in November 1945.

The final section of The Lady in Gold recounts Maria’s quest to regain the five Klimts at the Belvedere. “The 1946 Annulment Act declared Nazi-era legal transactions ‘null and void,’” writes O’Connor; but in practice, claims by Austrian Jews were often dismissed for lack of proof of ownership. “Officials who had played roles in the art theft during the war were now in the position to deny exiles their paintings.” Many claimants simply gave up.

Decades after the war ended, an Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin found proof in the archives that “Austria had knowingly stolen vast art collections” and had “concealed the evidence.” His 1998 article on this “double crime” caught the eye of Maria Altmann, now an elderly woman in Los Angeles.

Altmann contacted one of her Viennese friends, Randol Schoenberg, a 31-year-old attorney and grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg who was passionate about Holocaust restitution. Altmann and Schoenberg agreed to work together.

O’Connor sketches out the complex legal wrangling over the paintings in Austria and the United States with just enough detail to keep the battle interesting. Adele’s will was at the heart of the case. The Belvedere claimed that it entitled the museum to keep the Klimts. But Schoenberg believed her will was “a nonbinding request and that Ferdinand had paid for the paintings, making him, in Austria’s patriarchal society, their legal owner.”

Schoenberg initially argued his case before the Vienna Advisory Council on art restitution, which recommended against returning the paintings. He appealed to the Austrian Minister of Culture, who advised him that he could contest the decision in court – but Austria would require a $500,000 bond as a deposit against court costs.


The Golden Adele leaves Vienna

Schoenberg decided to pursue the case in the United States, where a federal court in Los Angeles supported Altmann’s right to pursue her claim. Austria appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. did not have jurisdiction. Schoenberg, universally considered the underdog, argued and won the case.

Schoenberg’s next move was risky: he proposed to resolve the claim through binding arbitration by a panel of Austrian legal experts. The Supreme Court case had caught Austria in a spotlight of negative publicity, so Schoenberg thought the chances of winning were good. After months of wrangling, the panel came down in Maria’s favor. The Bloch-Bauer Klimts would be returned to the family.

In her final months in Vienna, long lines of Viennese waited to see her one last time in the Belvedere. Many were ashamed and sad to see Adele go, while others were angry. Some Austrians pressed the government to buy the painting, but officials protested it was unaffordable.

“What is the meaning of justice when law is used to legalise thievery and murder?” O’Connor asks. “What is the meaning of cultural property when patrimony is an arm of genocide? What is the value of a painting that has come to evoke the theft of six million lives?” The Lady in Gold, she writes, is ultimately an indictment of Austrian historical amnesia about the fate of the Jews and Austria’s role in the theft of their property.

In 2006, Ronald Lauder purchased Adele’s golden portrait for the then record sum of $135 million for his New York museum of Austrian and German art, Die Neue Galerie. Although both Adele and Maria wished the paintings to be available to the public, the four other Klimts were sold at auction for a total of $192.7 million to unknown buyers.

The Lady in Gold
by Anne-Marie O’Connor
Knopf (2012)
pp. 368

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