The Woman in Gold

The mesmerising radiance of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s gaze in Gustav Klimt’s gold-flecked 1907 portrait of her provides no hint of the turbulent fate that was to beset the painting. Commissioned by her sugar industrialist husband Ferdinand, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I took Klimt three years to complete, and was completed amid speculation that the Austrian artist and his society subject were lovers. Following Adele’s death in 1925 from meningitis, the masterpiece remained in the Bloch-Bauer’s Vienna townhouse until the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Forming part of the Nazis’ cultural looting spree, it was one of five Klimt paintings taken from the Bloch-Bauer residence, with the pictures ending up in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery. Ferdinand died in exile in Switzerland in 1945.

The Nazis also stole an engagement ring belonging to Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece. Altmann escaped from Austria, making her way to Los Angeles with her husband where she opened a dress boutique. When the Austrian government passed a restitution law in 1998, ruling that property stolen by the Nazis could be returned to its rightful owners, Maria Altmann — now in her 80s — began a legal battle to regain the Klimts that belonged to her family, which included a second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. She partnered with inexperienced lawyer Randol Schoenberg — grandson of her aunt’s composer friend Arnold Schoenberg — for what became a protracted battle for justice against the Austrian authorities, the latter erroneously arguing that they legally owned the pictures.

Altmann needed to obtain proof that Adele’s stated wish to leave the paintings to the Belvedere Museum was superseded by the will of Ferdinand (the legal owner), who named his nieces as heirs, and secure a ruling from the United States Supreme Court, permitting her to sue Austria in an American court. An arbitration panel in Vienna would ultimately award Altmann ownership of the paintings. In June 2006 cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder purchased Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135 million, then the highest price ever paid for a painting, for display in Manhattan’s Neue Galerie, a sale brokered by Christie’s. The other Klimts were sold at a Christie’s sale of Impressionist and Modern Art later that year.

Filmmaker Simon Curtis happened to see a BBC documentary Stealing Klimt about Altmann in 2007 and unsurprisingly thought the remarkable tale was tailor-made for Hollywood. His resulting movie is Woman in Gold starring Dame Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as her lawyer Schoenberg. The film switches between Adele Bloch-Bauer in turn-of-the-century Vienna, the upheaval to the family caused by the Nazi occupation of Austria and Maria’s legal crusade towards the end of her life (she died in 2011). 

To ream more about Woman in Gold, click here to visit the Christie's website.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I