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 ÖVP-FPÖ 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.