On June 19, 2006, Carol Vogel wrote in an article titled “Lauder Pays $135 Million, a Record, for a Klimt Portrait” published in The New York Times that a 1907 portrait by the Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) had been purchased by Ronald S. Lauder for US$135 million.
Obviously the article is about the auction of the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, considered one of Klimt’s masterpieces, and one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. According to Vogel, it was ‘the highest sum ever paid for a painting’ (till that time). As of September 2010, the value of the painting after adjusting for inflation, based on the consumer price index, was US$145.3 million.
The painting was sold by Maria Altmann, a niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, in a private sale through Christie’s and the buyer was the American businessman and art collector Ronald Lauder, who bought the painting for his Neue Galerie New York, located in New York City, United States.
The painting made of oil and gold on canvas measuring 138 cm x 138 cm, was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar industrialist, patron of arts and a supporter of Klimt. The painting is a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of Bloch-Bauer.
According to art historians, Gustav Klimt took three years to complete the painting in 1907. It was embedded with gold and silver and with intricate artwork typical of Klimt’s style. Incidentally, Adele Bloch-Bauer had served as a female model for some of Klimt’s paintings and she was the only model whose picture was painted more than once by Klimt (including Adele Bloch-Bauer II which was completed by him in 1912).
In her will, Adele Bloch-Bauer requested her husband to donate the paintings by Klimt to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere (the Austrian State Gallery) upon his own death. But his entire estate, including the paintings was looted by the Nazis who invaded and occupied Austria, and he escaped to Switzerland. In 1945, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer designated his nephew and two nieces, including Maria Altmann as his estate’s legal heirs.
After World War II, the paintings came into the possession of the Austrian government. When laws were enacted in Austria for the restitution of art stolen during WWII, Altmann, who had escaped from Nazi occupation and settled in the U.S., went to Austria to claim the paintings. She even allowed them to keep the two portraits of her aunt, and claimed only the three Klimt landscapes. Because the negotiations did not find any solution, in 1999 she the Government of Austria in an Austrian court.
In 2000 she filed a lawsuit in the United States (Republic of Austria v. Altmann), and the case ended up in the Supreme Court of the United States that ruled in 2004 that ‘Austria was not immune from such a lawsuit’. Following it, Altmann and Austria entered a non-binding arbitration, upon which the arbitration court ruled in January 2006 that “Austria was legally required to return the art to Altmann”. After this ruling, Austria returned all the five Klimt paintings — Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), Buchenwald/Birkenwald (1903), Apfelbaum I (1912), and Häuser in Unterach am Attersee (1916) — to Maria Altmann.
After the paintings reached the United States, they were exhibited in Los Angeles in 2006 before the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold to Lauder. In November 2006, the second portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was sold for about US$88 million at auction at Christie’s in New York. The other four remaining paintings were reportedly sold for $192.7 million, and the proceeds from the sale of the five Klimt paintings were divided among Altmann and the other heirs of the estate.
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