The Popularity of Gustav Klimt and Post-WWII Art Restitution

Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862-1918) is currently considered one of the world’s most desirable artists. A forerunner of the modernist school, his symbolist style is unmistakable. Klimt was also active in the Vienna Secessionist movement.

On March 1st, Sotheby’s in London will offer Klimt’s Bauerngarten, lot 11, with an estimate topping $45M. This is the first time the work has come to market in two decades.

Bauerngarten dates to Klimt’s so-called “golden phase,” and was completed the same year as his famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, also known as The Woman in Gold.

In the early 20th century, the Bloch-Bauer family were respected members of Viennese society, as well as personal friends and patrons of Klimt.

Originally titled Adele Bloch-Bauer, the name of the portrait was changed to The Woman in Gold when it was seized by Nazi authorities in 1940, in a pathetic attempt to conceal the work’s connection with the Jewish Bloch-Bauer family.

For decades, the legend that Adele Bloch-Bauer’s wish was that the family’s Klimt paintings would be donated to the Austrian State Gallery was accepted as final. Yet Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer survived World War II, passing away in Zurich in November 1945 – but not before naming nephews and nieces as heirs of his estate, which of course included the Klimt paintings.

One of these nieces was Maria Altmann who had long since settled in the United States. Altmann sued the government of Austria in American courts the late 1990’s, and eventually prevailed in binding arbitration when a panel of Austrian judges pronounced her the rightful owner under Austria’s Holocaust restitution laws. The judgment included the family’s three other Klimt works.

In 2006, Altmann sold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer to Ronald Lauder and the Neue Gallerie in New York City for $135 million – a record price at the time. The work remains at the Neue Gallerie.

Three documentary films on Maria Altmann’s struggle for restitution exist at present, Stealing Klimt (2007), Adele’s Wish (2008), and The Rape of Europa (2006).

Most recently, however, was the 2015 film Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, and Ryan Reynolds as lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the great composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl. Currently available on Netflix, the film is well worth your time. Trailer linked below.

Klimt’s work continues to see high demand. Late last year, TV personality Oprah Winfrey recently sold Portrait of Adele-Bloch Bauer II (1912) to a Chinese buyer in a private deal that reached $150 million. Winfrey had loaned the work to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2014 to be part of their Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918. It will remain at MoMA through July.

See also:
Gustav Klimt and His 7 Muses Take Center Stage at New York’s Neue Galerie
Oprah Sells Famed Gustav Klimt Portrait for $150 Million