by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief
In June, 1908, Klimt unveiled his gold portrait of the 26-year-old Adele, making her an ‘instant celebrity’ (O’Connor):
‘Klimt embedded Adele in a luminous field of real gold leaf, giving her the appearance of a religious icon, which art historians would compare to the mosaic portrait of Empress Theodora in Ravenna.’
Three years later, a syphilis-ridden Klimt visits the Bloch-Bauer castle in Czechloslovakia to work on a second portrait of Adele that he shows in 1912:
‘It was a very different work. Her expression was mature, direct, and anything but seductive. This was an older Adele, with world-weary eyes and cigarette-stained teeth, a painting some would call evidence of the end of the affair.’ (O’Connor)
Adele and her husband would also own four Klimt landscapes, including the 1912 “Apple Tree”.
In 1913, Hitler left Vienna. The following year, an anarchist shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand outside of his residence at the Belvedere Palace, a random act that would lead to The Great War, and the death of millions of young men.
Klimt dies of Spanish influenza in 1918 at the age of fifty-five, a few months before Armistice Day which reduces the Habsburg’s empire from 60 million to a tenth of that population and squeezed into a debt-ridden new state.
Until Adele’s death of meningitis in her early 40s, she lives a prominent cultural life filled with intellectuals, Viennese composers and artists. In 1923, Adele wrote in a short will: “I ask my husband after his death, to leave my two portraits and the four landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna.” (O’Connor) In another strange parallel, it is the same year Hitler writes “Mein Kampf (My Struggle)”, ‘the bestseller he wrote from prison after his failed uprising in 1923’ (O’Connor).
Within 15 years, when Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer flees Austria to his summer home in Czechloslovakia prior to the unification of Germany and Austria, the Vienna Adele knew is unrecognizable. Members of the extended family are arrested, jailed and tortured until valuable assets are signed over to the Nazi government. Relatives pay a “flight tax” to escape to Canada ahead of deportation to concentration camps. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer is accused of financial crimes, his assets are ‘illegally taxed in Vienna and his entire estate was confiscated’ as he will write in his will in 1942. Ferdinand dies in November of 1945 in Zurich. He was unable to recovery any of his property. His estate is left to three of his nieces and nephews, including 25% to Maria Altmann who will lead the family’s fight for the legal return of the stolen Klimt paintings.
After the war, as some say, many Nazis exchanged their uniforms for suits and went to work to rebuilding Austria. New legislation discouraged Jews from returning to reclaim stolen property. Export licenses for ‘masterpieces’ were withheld, Jewish owners had to pay to get what was left of their businesses. O’Connor describes how Nazis in plainclothes entered Maria Altmann’s home, took her valuables, and imprisoned her husband at the infamous concentration camp, Dachau, until the family completed the paperwork required to Aryanize their property and businesses.
Maria, her husband Fritz, and other family members escape the Nazis and rebuild their lives, frustrated that the Bloch-Bauer Klimt paintings hang at Belvedere Palace with no mention of their Jewish patronage. Then the District Attorney of New York City impounds a painting borrowed for an exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from an Austrian Art Institution (see review of the film “Portrait of Wally”). Maria Altmann, now a widow in her 80s and living in Los Angeles, contacts “Randy” the lawyer son of a family friend. Randal Schoenberg spends years beating the odds with legal arguments, working his way into arbitration with the Austrian government who eventually agrees to return to the paintings to the family. O’Connor explains why Schoenberg was successful, how Maria Altmann helped the case, and why the family ended up selling the paintings. It’s a story that will hopefully encourage more Jewish families to pursue their own claims for looted art.