Vienna Legal | Love and Loss: The Legal History of the Painting Golden Adele

Great art has the power of legend. So it’s perhaps not surprising that one of the most spectacular legal disputes in post-war Austria was over the “The Woman in Gold”, a legendary portrait by great Secession artist Gustav Klimt, retold in the 2015 movie starring Helen Mirren.

The painting, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was a portrait of the 26-year-old daughter of Viennese banker Moritz Bauer, completed by Klimt in 1907.

Before she died in 1925, Adele Bloch-Bauer stipulated in her will that she wanted her husband – industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer who had commissioned the painting – to leave it to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

During probate, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer stated that the pictures were his property, but promised to fulfill his late wife’s wishes. The portrait, known as Goldene Adele in German, was exhibited at the Exposition d’Art Autrichien in Paris in 1937.

After Austria’s annexation by the German Reich in 1938, Bloch-Bauer fled to Switzerland. His art collection remained in Austria, but all bequests to Austrian museums, as previously set out, were retracted.

Childless, he appointed his nieces and nephews Maria Altmann, Luise Gutmann and Robert Bentley as heirs and commissioned the Viennese lawyer Gustav Rinesch to try to reclaim his assets.

Bloch-Bauer never returned to Vienna and died in Zurich in 1945. His assets and art collection had long since been expropriated by the Nazis. In 1941, Friedrich Führer, administrator of the expropriated property, conveyed Klimt’s Goldene Adele (among other paintings) to the Österreichische Galerie im Belvedere, then the “Moderne Galerie.”

After the war, Rinesch set to work. But despite his efforts, the heirs received only part of their inheritance. The most precious paintings, including Goldene Adele, remained in the Österreichische Galerie, being considered a part of Austria’s cultural heritage.

The dispute was revived in 1998, with the passage of the Austrian Art Restitution Act, which opened the documents of the state museums and galleries to the public. Journalist Hubertus Czernin found evidence that the government’s 1941 conveyance of the Klimt paintings was not valid and informed Bloch-Bauer’s heirs.

Maria Altmann, now in Los Angeles, petitioned the Austrian government for restitution of the portrait and other Klimt paintings. Austria maintained that they had been legally transferred, citing Adele Bloch-Bauer’s will.

With her death, however, they in fact belonged to her husband. In 2005, Maria Altmann filed suit in the U.S. and won the right to sue the Austrian Republic. In arbitration, she offered to lend the paintings permanently to the Belvedere, provided Austria entered into dialogue with her and restored ownership.

The government at the time – the ÖVPFPÖ coalition of Wolfgang Schüssel – dragged its feet. Altmann then offered to sell the paintings, at a fairly low price. Unwilling to pay, this too was turned down by the Austrian government.

In 2006, Altmann decided to take the paintings home. Shortly afterwards, the Goldene Adele was sold for $135 million (€110 million) to Ronald Lauder, former Ambassador to Austria and heir to the cosmetics empire, who hung it in his Neue Galerie of German and Austrian Art in New York City.

At the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a work of art. All in all, it seemed like a parable of Austria’s long history of avoidance to deal with the legacy of National Socialism.

The issue is not so much that modern Austria should assume full responsibility for the actions of the Third Reich – after all, the Republic did not exist back then, and has in many ways, become a model social democracy in the decades since the war.

But given the value of the property and the agony of loss, the cases need to be talked about openly and resolved, especially when the other side still feels as much goodwill towards Austria as Maria Altmann did until she died.

This was something the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition at the time was unwilling to do.

Christoph Krones
MMAG. Christoph Krones is an attorney-at-law from Vienna. His fields of expertise are civil and civil procedural law as well as administrative and administrative procedural law -

Help us help you

“Strong media and independent journalism are built on the shoulders of subscribers. Your support means the world to us.

Benjamin Wolf
COO & Managing Editor

The coronavirus outbreak affects and challenges your life in big and small ways. Metropole is here for you and we are proud to be your news source during this crisis.

But just as the coronavirus has increased the need for independent journalism, it has also undercut a major revenue source of media companies, ours included – advertising.

We need your support to keep it up – donate or subscribe and #helpushelpyou!

Support Metropole!


RECENT Articles

From Beirut to Vienna: Funeral March for the Dead

Following the devastating explosion in Beirut, the Lebanese diaspora in Vienna is demonstration in support.

The EU Deal Enters a New Phase

After an agreement over a coronavirus relief package, the European Union is working to implement the plan.

The Coronavirus in Austria & Vienna | New Support Platform Launched

Here’s all you need to know about current measures and developments, including trusted sources and tips – regularly updated.

Book Review | Daniel Kehlmann & The Power of Mockery

In Tyll, widely-acclaimed German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann reinvents a medieval legend to unmask the fatuity of rulers and the wisdom of tricks.

Why the EU Recovery Fund Is a Big Deal – for Europe & for the Climate

The recent budget-corona negotiations could lead to the creation of a fiscal union and a greater emphasis on sustainability.

Musical Chairs for UK-EU Expats – Grab a Seat Before the Music Stops

As the Brexit negotiations drag on, there is still no final clarity on the future of British citizens living in Europe. It is likely to be reciprocal – whatever that means. With Boris, who knows?


Join over 5,000 Metropolitans, who already get monthly news updates and event invitations.