Klimt paintings Nazis stole to be sold

Seattlepi 7 August 2006

NEW YORK (AP) -- Four of five oil paintings by Gustav Klimt that were the focus of a restitution battle between the Austrian government and the artworks' Jewish heirs will be heading to Christie's for sale this fall, the auction house announced Monday.

Christie's has not determined whether the works - three landscapes and a portrait worth an estimated $100 million - will be auctioned or sold privately, said Steven Thomas, the Los Angeles attorney who represents the heirs.

"The family only recently decided to go ahead and sell the four paintings," Thomas said. "It's quite possible some or all of them will go to auction in November."

The four paintings are currently on display at the Neue Galerie, a New York museum of German and Austrian art, along with one of Klimt's most famous works, an ornate portrait of Viennese art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer from 1907.

The five Klimts were handed over by Austria in January to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, Bloch-Bauer's niece, and other family members following a seven-year legal battle. An arbitration court had ruled that they were improperly seized when the Nazis took over the country during World War II.

The paintings temporarily went on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from April to June, when cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder purchased the gold-flecked portrait of Bloch-Bauer for a reported $135 million, topping the previous listed world art record of $104.2 million for a Picasso.

The other portrait to be sold at Christie's is a lesser-known, colorful portrait of Bloch-Bauer executed between 1903 and 1916.

Asked why the Bloch-Bauer heirs were selling the paintings after fighting for years to get them, Thomas said, "The family worked very hard to get back what had been stolen from them. These paintings are extremely valuable and require lots of security, and none of the heirs are in a position to keep the paintings, as much as they might want to."

Lauder, the co-founder of the Neue Galerie, was out of the country and not available for comment on Monday.

He told The New York Times in Monday editions that he would consider purchasing one or more of the available paintings "if the price is right."

"They're all great pictures," Lauder said. "Each one would have something to add to the Neue Galerie's collection. But if the buyer is not the Neue Galerie, I hope they will end up in other museums."

Altmann said it did not matter to her whether Christie's arranges an auction or private sales of the Klimts.

"I've never been to an auction, so I think it would be exciting," Altmann said. "I'm simply hoping for the best. So far fate has been very good to me."
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