The Woman in Gold

Tom Teodorczuk on the remarkable restitution story behind one of Gustav Klimt's most iconic works, now the subject of a major Hollywood movie

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 lay in store for the painting. Commissioned by her sugar-industrialist husband Ferdinand, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I  took Klimt three years to create, and was completed amid speculation that the Austrian artist and his high-society subject were lovers. Following Adele’s death in 1925 from meningitis, the masterpiece remained in the Bloch-Bauers’ Vienna townhouse until the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Targeted amid 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.

Video: The trailer for Woman in Gold

Altmann needed to obtain proof that Adele’s stated wish to leave the paintings to the Belvedere Museum was superseded by the will of Ferdinand (the legal owner), who named his nieces as heirs, and secure a ruling from the United States Supreme Court, permitting her to sue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.

In 2007 filmmaker Simon Curtis happened to see a BBC documentary about Altmann, Stealing Klimt, 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 suffered by the family in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Austria, and Maria’s legal crusade towards the end of her life (she died in 2011). ‘It’s a courtroom drama, an escape thriller and an odd-couple film,’ comments Curtis.   

A courtroom scene from Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, the niece of  Klimt’s muse, and Ryan Reynolds as E Randol ‘Randy Schoenberg, her lawyer. Photograph by Robert Viglasky
A courtroom scene from Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, the niece of Klimt’s muse, and Ryan Reynolds as E Randol ‘Randy' Schoenberg, her lawyer. Photograph by Robert Viglasky

The one constant is Klimt’s portrait itself. ‘It’s a witness to the themes of the film,’ Curtis says. ‘It’s the Mona Lisa of Austria, but it’s also symbolic of the golden years of Vienna. This happens to be a masterpiece that you can find on jam jars, slippers and T-shirts, but nothing about the reproductions prepares you for its magnificence when you first see it.’

According to Curtis, Woman in Gold  is not merely the narrative of a painting, but a portrait of a century. ‘It’s one of the great stories of the 20th century,’ he notes. ‘Maria was born during that remarkable time in Vienna when it had become the crucible for all the great ideas of the 20th century. Art, music, science and psychology were merging together. Then there was this extraordinary chain of events, and at the conclusion of the century both Maria and the painting ended up in the United States.’

Woman in Gold wears its heart, as well as its art, on its sleeve. ‘It’s about an emotional connection with the paintings because they were on the wall of this family home that has been destroyed,’ Curtis says. The fact that Mirren and Curtis themselves descend from families that fled wartime Eastern Europe during the 20th century enhanced their affinity with Altmann, although they never met her. ‘We talked to Randi a lot but, probably even better, we watched hours and hours of Maria’s interviews, which gave Helen and I a real sense of who she was,’ says Curtis. Mirren said recently: ‘Through the material I had the great pleasure of getting to know Maria Altmann, who was such a remarkable, wonderful, funny, sexy, witty, humane and great woman.’

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas. © 2015. Neue Galerie New YorkArt ResourceScala, Florence
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas. © 2015. Neue Galerie New York/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

Stephen Lash, Chairman Emeritus of Christie's Americas, did know Maria Altmann very well, originally through his interest in restitution cases. ‘Maria was one of the most memorable people I’ve ever met,’ he says. ‘She’s the kind of person you would walk into a restaurant with and the maître d' would stand and talk to her. If you got into a cab with her, you did so at your peril because the cab driver wouldn’t be watching the traffic. He would be turning around and talking to this charming woman in the back.’

Lash had a ringside seat as Altmann fought her legal battle against the Austrian government to reclaim her family’s property. ‘What I remember was her total lack of self-interest and total lack of greed,’ he says, adding that her motivations were as pure as the film portrays. ‘I have no doubt it was righting a wrong,’ he answers when asked what drove Maria to go to the lengths she did to achieve recompense. ‘She did it in the most elegant and correct, gentle but powerful way.’

Altmann was incredibly loyal as well as tenacious, he adds, citing both her decision to retain Schoenberg, thereby ignoring advice to hire a more experienced lawyer, and her choosing Christie’s to sell the Klimts once she was awarded the paintings. ‘Her lawyers kept saying to her, “We’ve got to make this competitive between the auction houses and you’ve got to get the best possible deal.” Maria said, “You can do whatever you want but I’m going with Lash!”.’

The Austrian authorities underestimated their octogenarian opponent. ‘I remember Maria telling me she went to Vienna and met with one of the ministries, and she was willing to do a deal with them on the basis that they got the portraits and that the family got back the landscapes,’ Lash recalls. ‘She would have settled on that basis and they would have got the gold portrait, but they said, “Nothing doing”. That’s when she pursued the case.’

Adele Bloch-Bauer wearing a dress from the ‘Wiener Werkstaette’, around 1910. Photo akg-imagesullstein bild
Adele Bloch-Bauer wearing a dress from the ‘Wiener Werkstaette’, around 1910. Photo: akg-images/ullstein bild

With the help of the late investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, played in the film by Daniel Brühl, Maria proved that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had named his nieces as heirs. At times, said Lash, the fight was farcical. ‘I had a good time watching the expressions of the judges during the Supreme Court case, particularly Judge [Clarence] Thomas who dozed off for a good part of the hearing. I kept a record based on their facial expressions of who would be voting which way, and I wasn’t far wrong.’

Austria vs. Altmann was a landmark case for restitution according to Monica Dugot, International Director of Restitution at Christie’s. ‘It was at a time when, while there were a number of restitution claims pending, there hadn’t been such a major victory,’ she explains. ‘Many claimants had tried to recover their cultural heritage and given up because of the obstacles in their way. Whenever a family sees a huge success like this it inspires other families to have the courage to think, “Let's go for it and try to recover our family property and heritage”.’

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and the famous work by Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Photograph by Robert Viglasky
Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and the famous work by Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Photograph by Robert Viglasky

Once Maria Altmann had reclaimed her property Lash introduced her to Ronald Lauder, who bought Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for the Neue Galerie, where it presently spearheads an exhibition to coincide with the film. ‘We knew that it would become the most expensive picture ever sold,’ says Lash. ‘But it was a high risk to put it at auction because at that time there were no similar Klimts that had ever approached anything more than $5 million. So it made sense for us to sell the most valuable piece at $130 million on a private basis, and with that comparable established in the market, to offer the other four pieces at auction.’

Altmann’s four Klimt paintings were sold at a record-breaking Christie’s sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in November 2006. ‘It was one of the most extraordinary sales I was ever involved in,’ recalls the evening’s auctioneer, Christopher Burge. ‘The highlight was the Klimts, which far and away exceeded anything we thought they were going to bring.’ For Lash the sale reinforced the notion that, ‘The auction world is a business based on relationships, not transactions.’ Prior to joining Christie’s he was a Vice-President at S.G. Warburg & Co, and paraphrasing Siegmund Warburg’s dictum on bankers, he says, ‘You can’t be someone’s auctioneer until you’re their friend. Maria Altmann was my friend.’

The fight for restitution will go on long after Woman in Gold  has left cinemas. ‘Although many families have been looking for their property for more than 65 years, the evolution and the infrastructure of the field has made it much more possible to locate and restitute objects than in the past,’ said Monica Dugot. ‘With greater access and availability of resources, heirs are coming forward as there are still hundreds of thousands of works still missing. The story is far from over.’