Monday, June 19, 2006

Of wills and war, and the world's most expensive painting

Art just keeps jumping into the news, doesn't it? As Jim Gust comments below, cosmetics magnate and former ambassador to Austria Ronald S. Lauder has purchased the painting shown here, Gustav Klimpt's 1907 portrait,"Adele Bloch-Bauer I," for a record $135 million. The painting will become "the Mona Lisa" of Lauder's Neue Galeria, a small NYC museum devoted to German and Austrian arts.

You can read all about it in this New York Times story.

Briefly, Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of a Jewish sugar magnate, presided over a noted Vienna salon at the beginning of the 20th century. She may have been Klimpt's lover as well as admirer. His portrait suggests old, imperial Vienna rushing into a gold-flecked new century, full of promise, or perhaps full of decadence and, as we now know, full of war.

Adele's three children died in infancy, and she herself died of meningitis at age 43. Her will expressed the wish that this portrait, and four other works by Klimpt that she and her husband owned, pass to Austria at his death.

In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria into the Third Reich. Mr. Bloch-Bauer fled, leaving the family possessions behind. The Nazis sold some of the works but placed this one, and two others, in an Austrian museum.

Mr. Bloch-Bauer reached safety in Switzerland. Before he died in 1945, he revoked all previous wills and made a new one, leaving everything to his brother's three children. Maria, the only surviving child, is now 90 and lives in Los Angeles.

After the war, Maria and her remaining relatives sought to reclaim the Klimpt paintings the Nazis had looted. The Austrian authorities eventually ruled that Adele had essentially bequeathed the Klimpts to Austria. But in 1998, a Viennese journalist researching the case for the Boston Globe found various documents, including Adele's will, which showed she was merely expressing a wish, not making a binding bequest.

In January, an Austrian arbitration panel awarded Adele's portrait and four other paintings to Maria and her relatives.

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