WOMAN IN GOLD tells the story of the most famous painting in Austria – its iconic pride – Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer l.
The 1907 portrait was one of two of Adele Block-Bauer (Antje Traue), the wife of a very wealthy Jewish sugar baron. Their mansion was filled with invaluable art and exquisite diamond jewelry. The family had five Klimt paintings. During the Nazi occupation-purge, the family fled Austria and left everything they owned behind.
Watching WOMAN IN GOLD reminded me of the ruthless behavior of the art world and the “art czars” who run it. There is currently a lawsuit in New York regarding a billionaire art dealer who has refused to return a famous $25 million painting that was stolen from a renowned Jewish art dealer by the Nazis during World War II.
In court papers, Philippe Maestracci alleges that the Helly Nahmad Gallery is wrongly in possession of the 1918 painting, ‘Seated Man With a Cane,’ by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. The canvas was owned by Maestracci’s grandfather Oscar Stettiner, a prominent Jewish gallery owner in Paris. The lawsuit continues to drag on.
An art restitution company, Mondex, that helps recover unclaimed estates and recovering Nazi-looted art, became involved in the dispute. There have been accusations that Mondex “capitalizes” on looted art restitution. Mondex fees range from 30% to 40% of the price of the painting.
Adele’s niece, 90-year-old California shopowner Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), charms a friend’s lawyer son, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the grandson of Austria’s Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, to work on her behalf to get her aunt’s painting back. Maria’s sister recently died and papers in her belongings clearly showed that the painting belonged to the family’s heirs (Maria and heirs living in Canada). But things are not so cut-and-dry. Adele’s “will” bequeathing the painting was never signed. After she died, it was her husband’s property.
Randy just got a brand new job but decides to take on Maria’s quest. We are not told their arrangement, but Randy’s devoted, patient wife Pam (Katie Holmes) expresses how tough things are for them financially. We must assume Randy is paying for his trips to Austria himself and doing the back-breaking, thankless work solely for the sake of justice.
Since wars began, armies have always looted. When Napoleon went to Egypt, he brought the 167-strong Commission des Sciences et des Arts for the sole purpose of looting. On one of my several trips to Egypt, my Egyptian tour guide told me, “They took the best stuff.” Today, the Louvre remains home to one of the largest departments of Egyptian antiquities in the world, holding objects dating from the 12th century BC to the 4th century AD.
Even obelisks,” Saddik added, in a clear reference to the two so-called Cleopatra’s Needles that adorn Paris’s Place de la Concorde and the Victoria Embankment of the Thames in LondonNapoleon’s rape of Egyptian culture even included two obelisks, the “Cleopatra’s Needles”, that adorn Paris’s Place de la Concorde. If he could have, Napoleon would have moved the Sphinx to his palace garden.
Why is the Rosetta Stone (found in Egypt by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799) still in the British Museum?
What is only briefly, very briefly, shown is the presence of multi-billionaire Ronald Lauder, who says in the film only this: “I want the painting for my gallery.” In 2006, Lauder paid $135 million for the painting. Coincidentally, Lauder was once the U.S. ambassador to Austria.
As part of the U.S. 2001 tax-cut legislation, Nazi victims and their heirs don’t have to pay federal income taxes on restitution payments or assets they recover through settlements with foreign governments. Also, Mrs. Altmann, a resident of Los Angeles, was not taxed by the state of California.
Considering the role fantastically wealthy men play in the art market, exactly what did Lauder do behind the scenes to acquire the paintings? Rumors abound that Lauder financed the legal proceedings. Was he in play from the beginning?
Why didn’t the Austrian government offer a special extravagant wing in the museum – naming it The Bloch-Bauer Gallery for the five Klimt paintings – with photos and other memorabilia honoring the family? I could have proposed a big plaque: “A gift to the Austrian people from Mrs. Maria Altmann.”
The wrangling would have been a much more interesting story than the Disney version presented here. After I questioned a friend’s gullibility that Randy did six years of hard labor for the sake of justice and Holocaust victims, I found out that the original contract called for Schoenberg to receive as his fee a 40% cut of whatever assets were recovered.
On paper, that’s $54 million for just one painting! Schoenberg has declined to discuss his fee, other than to note that “I have a longstanding relationship with Maria. Everybody’s very happy.”
Directed by Simon Curtis and written by Alexi Kaye Campbell (and the life story of E. Randol Schoenberg), it’s rather slow-moving and lacks the tricky, back door schemes that must have occurred.
I know, film the legend.
Mirren is a pro. She’s knows it’s a rather dull film without a villain and thrilling outcome. We know the paintings left Austria. So Mirren has to give her character as much spunk and charm as possible.
Reynolds, stretching his acting resume, gives up his slick, leading sex star oeuvre. And why not? Matthew McConaughey got free of his FAILURE TO LAUNCH, FOOL’S GOLD, and numerous other bombs – as well as “being arrested for dancing around naked and playing bongo drums while another man clapped” – to DALLAS BUYER CLUB, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and TRUE DETECTIVE.
Katie Holmes appears briefly as the worn-out, overtaxed wife. It’s a thankless role without any acting required meant to keep something current on her imdb.com page. Would Holmes even have a career if she had never married a global star?
Approximately 20 percent of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis, and there are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners.
I plan to start a GoFundMe.com project to mount a P.R. campaign to shame the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City into returning to Egypt just one of the thirteen Egyptian mummies it has on display. See a paper by Meg Swaney, “The Living Dead: Egyptian Mummies and the Ethics of Display”. johnshopkins.academia.edu/MegSwaney
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas and answers every email at email@example.com