The luminous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer now hangs in the Neue Galerie, on New York’s Fifth Avenue. How it got there is quite a story.
The dispute over this portrait, together with others owned originally by Ferdinand Bloch and his wife Adele Bloch-Bauer, and in keeping with many similar private law restitutionary struggles, was resolved only after a long, tortuous, expensive and emotionally draining process. It involved, over many decades, the Austrian national courts, the United States courts all the way to the United States’ Supreme Court, and finally an Arbitration Panel agreed to by both sides. Some 65 years passed between the unlawful passing of the painting to the Austrian National Gallery in 1941 and the return of the paintings to Maria Altmann in early 2006.
Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was, before World War II, a wealthy Czech industrialist, and president of the Österreichische Zuckerindustrie AG, a major sugar company. He commissioned a portrait of his wife from Gustav Klimt, and after about a year’s work, the golden, shimmery portrait was delivered in 1907. Adele died in 1925, from meningitis, and in her will, “requested” Ferdinand to leave the Klimt paintings the couple owned to the Austrian National Gallery.
Ferdinand fled Austria in 1938, and the invading Nazis confiscated both his businesses and the Bloch-Bauer’s home, containing the portrait and the other Klimt paintings. They assessed spurious “taxes” as being owed, thus triggering liquidation of the assets. An attorney was appointed, and unlawfully he sold or swapped the paintings, with three, including the Portrait, ending up with the Austrian Gallery.
Ferdinand died in Switzerland in 1945, and, understandably, by his will he did not leave the Klimt portraits to the Gallery. Two nieces and a nephew, including Maria Altmann who by that time was living in the Los Angeles, were his heirs. His estate consisted mainly of claims to seized property.
The Case Summary prepared for the later Arbitral proceedings recorded:
In January 1948, the heirs’ attorney, Dr. Gustav Rinesch, attempted to recover some of the Klimt paintings from the Austrian Gallery. The Austrian Gallery responded by taking the position that the paintings were donated by Adele Bloch-Bauer in her will of 1923, which designated her husband as her universal heir and requested that he donate six Klimt paintings to the Austrian Gallery after his death.
However, according to the legal proceedings which followed Adele’s death in 1925, Ferdinand stated that the paintings were his, and not his wife’s, property and that he was not legally obligated to fulfill the wishes expressed in her will, although he allegedly promised to do so.
Despite efforts by and on behalf of the heirs over the years, the three paintings, by now held by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, remained there through until the late 1990s, and as Simon Houpt notes,
“ ... became synonymous with Viennese culture and Austrian pride, especially Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which has been reprinted endlessly on T-shirts, postcards, and dormitory room posters. It seemed fruitless to Maria Altmann [Ferdinand’s niece] and the other Bloch-Bauer heirs to put up a fight.”
But the legal landscape changed in 1998. The Austrian Parliament passed legislation,
“ ... requiring all federal museums to ensure their holdings were free of art illegally seized during the war.”
As a resident of California, and frustrated by procedural and technical delays and obstacles which had stalled her Austrian legal proceedings, Altmann sued in the US Courts, and ultimately, the Supreme Court held that she was not barred from suing the Austria by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. However, the case did not proceed to trial in the US as in May 2005 the family and Austria agreed to arbitration in Austria.
Thus the case came to be decided before an Austrian arbitral tribunal, governed by Austrian law and procedure. The Tribunal concluded:
1. The Republic of Austria acquired ownership of the paintings by Gustav
Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Apfelbaum,
Buchenwald/Birkenwald, and Häuser in Unterach am Attersee by virtue of
the settlement with the representative of the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer,
Dr. Gustav Rinesch, in 1948.
2. The conditions of the Federal Act Regarding the Restitution of Artworks
from Austrian Federal Museums and Collections dated 4th December 1998,
... for the return of the five paintings indicated above without remuneration to the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer are fulfilled.
The Tribunal accepted that Adele’s will, by which she left the paintings to her husband, with a wish that after his death, they be left to the Austrian nation, was a non-binding request :
“I ask my husband after his death to leave my two portraits and the four landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian State Gallery in Vienna and to leave the Vienna and Jungfer, Brezan library, which belongs to me, to the People’s and Workers’ Library of Vienna."
Therefore, Austria could not have acquired title to the paintings via her will. Title was not acquired through other available means, and given that the requirements of the Austrian statute were fulfilled, the paintings should be, and were, returned.
Although the ruling was initially greeted with some concern as to its narrowness of application, it was subsequently viewed:
“ ... as a pivotal Holocaust reparations case, ... Having litigated all the way to the Supreme Court prior to arbitration, Altmann established the United States civil litigation system as an acceptable platform for Nazi looted-art cases.”
"These paintings stolen from Jewish homes are the last prisoners of World War II. I believe more art will be returned to its rightful owners," said art collector and Neue Galerie founder Ronald Lauder, who purchased "Adele Bloch-Bauer II" in June for the museum.
Maria Altmann sold the Adele Bloch-Bauer I portrait in 2006 to the Neue Galerie Museum in New York, founded by Ronald Lauder and dedicated to German and Austrian Art, and which plays a prominent role in provenance research, including issues relating to “Jewish life and post-Nazi restitution issues.” The portrait is a centre piece of its collection.
The carefully worded provenance statement from the Museum’s website hints at the storied tragedies of the painting’s history:
Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Vienna (Acquired from the artist).
Seized by the Viennese Magistrate (following the Nazi Anschluss, March 1938).
With Dr. Erich Führer, Vienna (the state-appointed administrator for Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer).
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
Restituted to the heirs of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer by the Republic of Austria. Neue Galerie New York.”
The Neue Gallery
The Gallery’s website is at: http://www.neuegalerie.org/