Klimts Go to Market; Museums Hold Their Breath

New York Times 19 September 2006
By Michael Kimmelman

Visitors at the Neue Galerie for the show of Klimts, four of which will be auctioned at Christie’s in November.

How sad — if unsurprising — to hear that the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer are indeed cashing in, as planned, and selling four Klimts at Christie’s in November. A story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust has devolved into yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.

Wouldn’t it have been remarkable (I’m just dreaming here) if the heirs had decided instead to donate one or more of the paintings to a public institution? Or, failing that, to negotiate a private sale to a museum at a price below the auction house estimates of $15 million to $60 million?

To back up: Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish industrialist in Vienna, commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint his wife, Adele, in 1907, and again in 1913. The family also acquired three Klimt landscapes. Adele died at 43, in 1925, of meningitis. Public-spirited, she wanted her art to go to Austria.

But then the Nazis came to power. They seized the Bloch-Bauer collection along with everything else the family owned. Ferdinand fled Vienna. He died in Zurich in 1946. For decades the Austrian government insisted that it had acquired the Klimts legally. The case went to court. In January the heirs won. They were led by Maria Altmann, Ferdinand’s niece, now 90 and living in Los Angeles. Her lawyer was Randall Schoenberg, the grandson of another Hollywood exile, Arnold Schoenberg.

In April, Mrs. Altmann lent the five recovered Klimts to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, saying the works would probably be put up for sale. In June, the billionaire collector Ronald Lauder bought the early portrait of Adele for $135 million on behalf of the Neue Galerie, his museum of German and Austrian art on the Upper East Side. Auction houses jockeyed to sell the other pictures. Since July all five Klimts have been on view at Mr. Lauder’s museum, where they remain through Oct. 9.

It is of course only sane that Adele and Ferdinand’s heirs seek to capitalize on a booming market, even as they might, in a more perfect world, have been altruistic too. The wall label for Mr. Lauder’s portrait of Adele at the Neue Galerie is curious: “This acquisition made available in part through the generosity of the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer.”

What exactly does that mean? Mr. Lauder was generous in paying a fortune for the picture. There might be some generosity ascribed to the heirs in lending the paintings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Neue Galerie, were it not for the fact that the museums provided presale publicity of a sort that no auction house could organize.

These museums added their prestige to the value of the collection, kindling interest in the artist and in Adele, in the intellectual salons of turn-of-the-century Vienna, in the notion of historical rectitude.

In retrospect it may yet come to seem a pity that the Austrians declined to buy all five works for about the same amount that Mr. Lauder paid for Adele, saying the price was too high. At least the works would all have remained on public view. Over the years they had become — in particular Mr. Lauder’s Adele — civic landmarks and tourist attractions in Vienna.

They might become landmarks in Los Angeles or New York or some other city, where a museum could display them with the Bloch-Bauer name properly attached. But how well any public institution, in the United States or abroad, will be able to compete at Christie’s is an open question.

Among the Klimts, the second portrait of Adele has its charms and the highest estimate. At half the estimate, a forest scene of birch trees is the real gem, and a bargain at $20 million: an Edenic mix of sharp realism and Pointillist dots receding into deep space. While Picasso acquainted himself with African art a century ago, Klimt was visiting Ravenna and admiring the mosaics. In “primitivism,” the artist’s modernism found a way to the future.

How refreshing this story would have been had the Bloch-Bauers conceived a way to ensure that that birch landscape, say, ended up in public hands. In so doing they would have earned not just public sympathy for their family’s struggle but also an enduring share of public gratitude. They would have underscored the righteousness of their battle for restitution and in the process made clear that art, even in these money-mad days, isn’t only about money.

Heck, they would even have gotten a tax break.
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