11 September 2018

The Woman in Gold: battle for Klimt's art

The film Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis, was about the recovery of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I 1907.

Gustav Klimt 1862-1918 (Moritz Bleibtreu)’s finished portrait painting, made of gorgeous oil, silver and gold, took three years to complete. His 1907 painting, commission by the husband, had originally been titled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. It was the first of 2 port­raits that Klimt painted of Adele; then Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II in 1912.

When Adele died in 1925, her 6 paintings by Klimt were not left to Austria. She spec­if­ied in her will that the paintings were to be left to her husband and asked that he donate them to the Austrian State Gallery upon his death, to be put on display in the prest­ig­ious Belvedere Palace. However Adele's husband, wealthy sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's own will stated that his estate, including the Klimt paintings, was to go to his heirs.

But Ferdinand did not die until WW2, and by that time the paintings had already been stolen by the Nazis. A German lawyer administered their sale, and in 1941, the Austrian State Gallery won the Klimt works. The Nazi curator at the Austrian Gall­ery first changed the paint­ing’s name to hide the fact that the model was Jewish.

Dame Helen Mirren played the late Maria Altmann (nee Bloch Bauer 1916-2011), niece of Adele, very well. I don’t like docu-dramas, especially when English-speaking actors have to put on fake German accents while speaking in English. But I love Vienna’s early C20th Golden Era, its art, music and cultural salons, and was keen to see the film.

The story was seen through two streams, the first located recently, and the second via flashbacks to the 1930s. We saw the cultiv­ated life of the Bloch-Bauer family, a Jewish business family in Vienna. Adele (1881-1924) hosted a chic cult­ural sal­on where Klimt and other artists met their patrons and bonded with them. Maria Altmann recalled the arrival of Nazi forces in Vienna, oppression of the Jewish com­munity and Nazi looting of art treasures. Nazis raided the family-home and took jewel­lery, her father's Stradivarius and paintings.

Anne-Marie O'Connor's book Lady in Gold: Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece said Ferdinand Altmann had been arrested by the Nazis and held at Dachau concentration camp for two months. Later the couple tried to escape 3 times before the country was completely shut off; eventually they succeeded, boarding a plane to Cologne. While Altmann and her brand new husband were successful in escaping, she was forced to abandon her parents in Vienna. From the UK, the young couple made their way across Holland and then to Liv­erpool. But as the British were growing more suspicious of Axis citizens living in Britain, they travelled to America.

Then the film jumped to the 1990s when an elderly and widowed Altmann was attending her sister’s funeral in Los Angeles. She discovered her sister’s late 1940s letters which wanted to recover fam­ily artwork that had been stolen by the Nazis.

Altmann hired lawyer Randol Sch­oenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to get her art back via the Restitution Board in Austria. Note that grandpa Arnold Schoenberg’s music had been defined as Degenerate by the Nazi Party's cultural auth­orities. After being warned to get out, Arnold fled via Paris to America in 1933, teaching at the University of Southern California.

 Woman in Gold, by Klimt. 1907 (top photo)
 Adele Bloch-Bauer (lower photo)
The film showed how Maria Altmann first tried to reclaim some of her family's art in 1998, aged 82! Restitution across Europe was improving; Swiss banks had agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement after being sued by Holocaust surviv­ors, to return assets deposited during the war. The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art was signed in Dec 1998 by 44 countries, including Austria. And the Austrian Parliament passed its own law requiring museums to allow researchers to explore their stolen items archives. 

By opening the Ministry of Culture archives for the first time, the new law enabled Austrian lawyer and investigative journ­alist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl) to discover that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had NEVER donated the paintings to the state museum. [Czernin eventually traced thousands of Nazi-looted works of art to Austria’s national museums] . 

In 1999, Schoenberg and Maria sought to sue the Austrian government in an Austrian court. But under Austrian law, the filing fee for lawsuits was determined as a percentage of the recoverable amount. The five paintings were then estimated at cUS$135 million, making the filing fee $1.5+ million - too much for Altmann, so she dropped her case. In any case, Altmann heard that the country's minister was unwilling to part with the iconic painting, which they felt had be­come part of Austria’s national identity.Randol then filed in Aug 2000 in the Californian District Court, using a nar­row rule of law in which an art restitution law was retro­act­ively applied. A Republic of Austria v Altmann appeal went to the American Supreme Court where the court ruled in Altmann's fav­our.

The American Supreme Court cleared the way to sue the Austrian government. In order to avoid a lengthy and expensive court battle, she agreed to binding arbitration in Austria, given her advanced age.

In front of three arbiters, the panel heard the case over four months. Schoenberg asked the arbitration panel to see the injustice to the families who were deported or forcibly separated from their treasures by the Nazis. The arbitration panel ruled in favour of Altmann, returning 5 of her 6 works!

Yes the Bloch-Bauer art collection was looted by Nazi authorities in Vienna, and yes Austria fought aggressively to avoid returning it, given that the iconic paintings were seen as part of Austria’s identity. So of course the painting's departure was a significant loss to Austria. But hey.. after 8 years of struggle to reclaim the paintings (1998-2006), Maria grabbed the works and took them back to the USA!

The film didn’t discuss the heirs' decision to sell off the family paintings, valued at $325 million, but I personally found it prob­lematic. Were the Bloch-Bauer heirs simply cashing in on a booming art market, rather than pursuing justice? What other memories would they have of their parents and grandparents? The main painting was sold to cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder (son of Estée Lauder) in 2006 for a record $135 million.

Lauder promised to display the painting at his Neue Galerie New York permanently. Plus he planned a fine exhibition called Klimt and the Women of Vienna's Golden Age 1900-18, held at the Neue Galleries New York until Jan 2017. Naturally the two Bloch-Bauer portraits were the star presentations.

Gustav Klimt
All photos from Beauty Will Save


mem said...

I did a lot of reading about this when we recently visited Vienna . I made the habit of checking out the Jewish connection to all the places and paintings we saw . It gave everything an added angle of interest and in some cases sadness. I think the Altman family did what was sensible in that they became owners, again ,of something that was extraordinary . I think that the security issues etc would have just been too hard and maybe too, they just wanted to move on with their lives . I must say I found it hard to reconcile the ugliness of the paintings history ,with their beauty .

Joseph said...

There is an excellent review of the book The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O'Connor in falter.at.

The first part of the book tells the history of the painting’s genesis.
The second part chronicles the fates of Adele’s family and friends under the Nazi regime
The final section recounts Maria’s quest to regain the five Klimts at the Belvedere.


Hels said...


although Klimt didn't always behave well, his paintings were both a symbol of Vienna's Golden Age and highly desirable works of art for his patrons. So it makes absolute sense that the survivors of the Bloch-Bauer family would want to claim their relatives' treasures. What was so stunning was that, despite the Austrian authorities determination to not let the paintings go and despite Maria Altmann's VERY advanced age, justice eventually won.

I too loved the Belvedere Palace and look forward to my third visit. But I did not get a chance to see Klimt and the Women of Vienna's Golden Age 1900-18. Hopefully it is possible to buy the Neue Galleries New York catalogue.

Hels said...


I was not aware of the Falter.At newsletter, even though it started in Vienna way back in 1977. In addition to its original role as a magazine of the arts and social life, Falter has since broadened its range of interests and produces, as you noted, some very interesting work. Thank you...the Mary Albon was very done.

Andrew said...

A great summary of the story. I enjoyed the film when I saw it on a plane somewhere. I am not sure why, but I never remembered to have a look at a picture of the painting, and it is a stunning piece of work.

Hels said...


even a photo of the painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I/Woman in Gold does not impress as much as seeing the painting in person. The portrait is huge (1.4 x 1.4 metres) and the gold is dazzling.

Mind you, I would say the same thing about The Kiss and other masterpieces from Klimt eg his Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer is not gold but it is a huge, dazzling painting.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, That's amazing chutzpah, stealing a painting under the most appalling circumstances, renaming it to hide its ethnicity, and then having the temerity to avoid restitution by claiming it as an important element of Austria's national identity.

The bright gold color of the painting adds its own level of irony to this.

CherryPie said...

Thank you for the interesting history.

I was lucky enough to see the portrait in Vienna before it was recovered.

Klimpt's paintings are fascinating to see due to his use of paint and light.

Hels said...


you can understand the European courts being reluctant to grant any claim on art, land, houses, jewels or bank accounts without rigorously proven, original documentation. The usual problem was that the owners and their children died in the war or their house was bombed or the Nazis stole all the property and documentation back in the early 1940s. How rare it must be for a niece or grandchild of the original owner to produce the proper papers to a European court in the 1990s.

Yet Maria Altmann (nee Bloch Bauer) did! Her documentation was legal beyond question... yet the courts still blocked her every move.

Hels said...


I too spent two summer holidays in Vienna, catching up with any element of Vienna's golden age that still stood. Imagine living then and seeing the sensational Vienna Secession produce their art from 1898 on. Or hearing the composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. I would have loved seeing Joseph Maria Olbrich's new gallery and heard lectures by Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud.

Klimt shone, didn't he?

mem said...

If ever you get back to Vienna Hels , go and see the home of Otto Wagner the architect who designed so many of the wonderful buildings of the Secession . It was bought and restored by Ernst Fuchs painter who also survived the holocaust. The house is in Huttlesberg on the outskirts of the city . It Is totally amazing both as a building but also as a gallery of Fuchs works. I LOVED it

Hels said...


Excellent, thanks.

I did an organised Otto Wagner tour some 18 years ago, and I remember most of the most amazing buildings clearly. I was not a huge art nouveau fan, but his public facilities were amazing - Kirche Am Steinhof, Linke Wienzeile, Postal Savings Bank, a couple of the railway stations and the pavilions at Karlsplatz. I don't remember the private villas as much, perhaps because I remember Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Adolf Loos' homes much better. What an era!!

mem said...

Otto Fuchs would actually be a great subject fro a post . He was pretty amazing and had an interesting personal back story.

Hels said...


I really value blogging colleagues :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I so enjoyed the film ... so your post is a great reminder. I bought a follow up film on it ... but cannot remember exactly what it was ... and it's back in store in the UK. But the storyline and information on Klimt inspired me to get the documentary - it may have been about making the film ... but thanks for this. I really need to get to Vienna sometime - so much to see ... great post, loved reading it - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


When we were young and energetic, between 2 years working in Israel and 2 years working in the UK, we had 3 months driving around Europe at leisure. The highlights were Venice, Barcelona, Paris and Stockholm, but especially Vienna. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but this time staying in hotels instead of caravans :)