A glimpse of New York’s Mona Lisa

By Alex P. Vidal

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”—Pablo Picasso

I SPENT my Labor Day on September 5 at the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design located in the William Starr Miller House at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue.

There, I personally saw the dazzling gold-flecked 1907 portrait by Gustav Klimt of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Jewish sugar industrialist and the hostess of a prominent Vienna salon, described by cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder to be “our Mona Lisa.”

Billionaire Lauder purchased the portrait for $135 million, the highest sum ever paid for a painting.

The portrait, known in the film as “Woman in Gold”, is considered as one of the artist’s masterpieces.

For years, it was the focus of a restitution battle between the Austrian government and a niece of Mrs. Bloch-Bauer, who argued that it was seized along with four other Klimt paintings by the Nazis during World War II.

In January all five paintings were awarded to the niece, Maria Altmann, now 90, who lives and works in Los Angeles, and other family members.

Although confidentiality agreements surrounding the sale forbid Mr. Lauder to disclose the price, experts familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he paid $135 million for the work.


In an interview by Carol Vogel of the New York Times in 2006, Mr. Lauder did not deny that he had paid a record amount for the painting, eclipsing the $104.1 million paid for Picasso’s 1905 “Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice)” in an auction at Sotheby’s in 2004.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition,” said Lauder, a founder of the 16-year-old Neue Galerie, a tiny museum at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street devoted entirely to German and Austrian fine and decorative arts.  He said Christie’s had helped him negotiate the purchase.

According t Vogel, for most of the last 60 years the portrait has hung in the Austrian Gallery in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna near “The Kiss,” another gold-flecked Klimt masterpiece of the Art Nouveau era.

With its sinuous lines and intricate details, the painting, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was commissioned by the subject’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

Mrs. Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis in 1925 at 43. In her will she requested that the painting and four others by Klimt that the couple owned be left to Austria upon her husband’s death.


But when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, Mr. Bloch-Bauer fled, leaving all of his possessions behind.

The Nazi government confiscated his property, placed three of the paintings in the Austrian Gallery and sold the rest.

Before Mr. Bloch-Bauer died, in November 1945, having spent the war years in Switzerland, he revoked all previous wills and drafted a new one. Since he and Adele had no children, he left his entire estate to three children of his brother Gustav: Robert, Luise and Maria.

Of the three, only Maria Altmann is still living: she and her husband, Fritz, fled Austria during the war and settled in Los Angeles in 1942. She has a niece and two nephews; a cousin of her brother’s second wife also survives.

In an interview by Vogel, Mrs. Altmann said she had met Mr. Lauder, a former American ambassador to Austria, some years ago and that she had visited the Neue Galerie when it first opened in November 2001. “Mr. Lauder has a great understanding of Austria and a great love for Klimt,” she said, adding that neither she nor her relatives felt it was practical for any of them to keep the painting, which depicts her aunt, whom she remembers from her childhood but who died when she was just 9.


That Mrs. Altmann and her relatives have possession of the painting is a tale of perseverance and tenacity. After the war the family tried to regain their stolen possessions, including the paintings, porcelains, palaces and the sugar company founded by Mr. Bloch-Bauer.

Much of the artwork was divided up among the top Nazis, including Hitler and Hermann Goring; Reinhardt Hedrick, a Nazi commander, occupied a summer palace owned by Mr. Bloch-Bauer outside Prague.

The heirs were able to recover some of the works, but the Austrian authorities ruled that Mrs. Bloch-Bauer’s will had essentially bequeathed the Klimts to Austria. Without access to the original documents, the family had no case.

By the mid-1980’s journalists had begun investigating the restitution claim, and in 1998 Hubertus Czernin, a Viennese journalist researching the case for The Boston Globe, was able to find the documents, including Mrs. Bloch-Bauer’s will, which expressed a wish—but did not require—that the Klimts go to Austria.