Another art theft story has been implemented in a Hollywood movie. “Woman in Gold” deals with the case of restitution to the painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Gustav Klimt, who for many years was seen as a valuable Austrian Cultural Property in Vienna’s Belvedere. In the film embodies Helen Mirren US-citizen Maria Altmann, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who now reclaims this property. In flashbacks, the film tells how the family Bloch-Bauer was persecuted by the Nazis and robbed of all their property. In the present Maria Altmann and her attorney search for evidence of the former property and file for the restitution of the portrait of Altmann’s aunt. Beautiful pictures woven around a detective story, written by life – a story provenance researchers deal with every day.
The restitution case of the “Gold-Adele,” the Klimt paintings of Adele Bloch-Bauer in the style of Art Nouveau from 1907, actually exists. The Bloch-Bauer family was a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, which contributed a lot to the cultural life of the city. Gustav Klimt portrayed Adele twice, both paintings were acquired by the Bloch-Bauers. The couple remained childless and so the husband Ferdinand inherited the art collection after Adele’s death in 1925.
After 1938, life in Vienna became increasingly difficult for the family. Ferdinand fled to Switzerland, his property was confiscated, his company arianized. Among the confiscated art works was the Gold-Adele, which was sold to the Austrian National Gallery (to meet the tax debt that had been imposed on the fugitive Bloch-Bauer). After the war, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer reclaimed the confiscated art collection. In 1948, the Austrian State agreed with the heirs that some paintings were allowed to stay in Austria and in return gave the authorization to export the remaining paintings – classified as nationally valuable cultural heritage – which otherwise would not be allowed to leave the country. The family – Ferdinand, his nieces and other family members – emigrated to the United States.
In the aftermath of the Washington Declaration, Austria undertook provenance research of the national collections. In 1998, Maria Altmann, niece and co-heiress of the Bloch-Bauer-familiy, claimed the restitution of 5 Klimt paintings now exposed in the Vienna Gallery Belvedere. This request was negatively decided in the first instance, because Adele had bequeathed the artworks to the Austrian State Gallery in her will. It followed a several-year period of litigation in which Maria Altmann in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the Austrian State. In January 2006, an agreement was achieved in a non-judicial arbitration to restitute f the 5 paintings to Altmann. In mid-2006, these works of art were transferred to the United States. The “Austrian Mona Lisa” as a national treasure was brought out of the country.
What the movie trailer doesn’t tell: Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann stressed several times that she was aiming for a reunion with her aunt, that the memory of the beloved woman triggered the desire to reclaim this work of art and the others. That may perhaps have been the trigger for this costly lawsuit. But already in June 2006 the “Gold-Adele” was for sale and sold with the greatest media attention for the record-breaking price of 135 million US dollars to the New York art collector Ronald S. Lauder. Lauder integrated it into his private collection, which, fortunately, is open to the public as “Neue Galerie” in Manhattan.
The reunification of the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer with her niece Maria Altmann was short-lived.