Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

That's what the Austrian government asked during the eight long years it fought Maria Altmann over ownership of five paintings. They weren't just any paintings. They were paintings by Gustav Klimt. They were paintings that belonged to her family when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. You probably recognize The Kiss. Reproductions of it have shown up on everything from coffee mugs to notebook covers. The painting is part of the collection of the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna.

Perhaps the painting you're not so likely to identify is this one of Maria Altmann's aunt, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. (1907) Adele was the wife of wealthy Viennese sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer who was a supporter of the arts in general and of Klimt in particular. The 54" square painting, a work of three years, done in oil and gold on canvas, hung in the dining room at "Aunt Adele's" where Maria Altmann ate her Sunday lunch. In 1925 Adele succumbed to meningitis. She had asked her husband to donate the painting at his death to the Austrian State Gallery. Then came the Nazis with their Wehrmacht, forcing the Jewish Ferdinand to flee to Switzerland.

The Nazis confiscated his property and his paintings. Truth is, the Nazis confiscated thousands of art treasures across Europe. Adolph Hilter, a frustrated water colorist himself, and Hermann Goering plundered countless works of art - paintings, sculptures, altar pieces - for themselves, burned others deemed degenerate, and hid train car loads of art in the castles and salt mines of Europe. (Another post for another day.) The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer remained somewhere in Austria as Maria, a 21 year old bride watched as her husband was seized by the Gestapo and shipped off to Dachau in an attempt to force his brother to turn over the family textile factory. Maria and her husband eventually escaped to Holland and later to the United States. The family portraits and paintings were not recovered.

Then in 1998 as the truth behind the great art theft of WWII came to light, Maria heard that the Austrian government demanded the return TO THE GOVERNMENT the plundered art treasures of its Jewish citizens. The paintings and portraits. Her family's painting and portraits. And that's when the problem with Maria began. She fought tooth and nail to recover what was rightfully the property of her family. Few individuals sue national governments and win. But she sued and she won. In 2006, after eight long years, the Austrian government returned to Maria The Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer, along with four other family paintings by Gustav Klimt. Maria was reunited with the family treasures at an emotional public transfer and they were then briefly on display in Los Angeles.
Maybe this is igniting a spark in your memory. Later in 2006 Ronald Lauder (of Estee fame) purchased The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer for $135 million making it the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art. The portrait now hangs in Lauder's Neue Galerie in New York, a collection of recovered Jewish-owned art looted by the Nazi government. Of this portrait Lauder states, "This is our Mona Lisa."

Maria pursued recovery of the painting "with the same resolve she had used in dealing with the Nazis all those decades ago," according to her friend and attorney Randof Schoenberg. And Maria? She died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 94.

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