Klimt painting looted by Nazis sold to NY museum

Mercury News 19 June 2006
Andrew Glazer (AP)

LOS ANGELES - An oil and gold-encrusted portrait by Gustav Klimt that was the focus of a battle between the Austrian government and the subject's niece has been purchased for a record-setting amount by a New York museum, an attorney said.

The 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer - one of the most recognizable of the 20th century - was sold by Los Angeles resident and Bloch-Bauer's niece Maria Altmann and her family, said her attorney Steven Thomas on Sunday.

Thomas refused to disclose the price, but said it eclipsed the prior record of $104.1 million paid at auction for Picasso's 1905 "Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice)." The New York Times, citing experts familiar with the negotiations, reported the portrait sold for $135 million.

The Klimt painting will now be displayed at the Neue Galerie, a New York museum of German and Austrian art co-founded by cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder, who Thomas said was instrumental in the deal.

"It was important for the heirs and for my aunt Adele that her work be displayed in a museum," Altmann said in a statement released by the family.

Five to 10 private collectors were "in the hunt" for the portrait, Thomas told the Los Angeles Times, along with three-to-five museums.

Altmann, 90, was a newlywed when she watched the Nazis seize power in 1938 and steal the portrait and four other Klimt works from her aunt and uncle's home.

Since then, the portrait has hung mostly in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere in Vienna, near Klimt's famous painting "The Kiss."

Altmann had figured she had no hope of recovering the family collection until a 1998 law in Austria required museums to return art seized by the Nazis.

She spent the past seven years fighting the Austrian government to recover her family's collection.
Lawyers in Austria, however, claimed that Altmann's aunt, who died of meningitis in 1925, had willed the paintings to the government gallery and resisted returning them to the family.

But with the help of attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann and her family sued the Austrian government in the United States - a lawsuit that eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Austrian government repeatedly tried to have it dismissed.

The Supreme Court in 2004 ruled in Altmann's favor and following arbitration, the Austrian government awarded all five paintings to Altmann and her family in January. The collection has been on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since April and will remain there until June 30, Schoenberg said.

LACMA officials had hoped to obtain the painting - perhaps all five of them. LACMA had some discussions with the family, but the museum's entire endowment is about $125 million and it normally spends less than $5 million a year on new art.

"I'm sad it's not going to Los Angeles," LACMA director Michael Govan told the Los Angeles Times.

"But the fact that it's going to a museum in America is great. Ronald Lauder is to be congratulated . . . . The art has been a passion of his since he was a teenager. He's spent huge amounts of his life and resources celebrating this art."

Govan said the most LACMA has paid for a single work of art is in "the single-digit millions."
Altmann wanted to ensure the art would remain somewhere in public view.

"One of the things we always wanted to do was for this to tell the story of what happened to Maria and her family and Jews in the Holocaust," Schoenberg said. "Now by having this painting on the wall, it will allow this story to be told and retold."
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