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What do Gustav Klimt, The Nazis, Estée Lauder & Ryan Reynolds have in common?

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

This painting!

Artwork: Portrait of Adele Bloch – Bauer I

Artist: Gustav Klimt

Year: 1907

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Location: New York, Private collection.

Now, I’m sure most of you know or have heard of Gustav Klimt’s painting ‘The Kiss’ – and if you don’t know the name, you will know the visual – a couple kissing surrounded by gold and flowers. But I promise you - this painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, has a much more interesting history.

The sitter, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was a patron of the arts and client of Klimt. The sitter’s husband, Ferdinand, commissioned Klimt to paint Adele twice in her life – both portraits, but the end results of each work are polar opposites to the other! Klimt was one of the most successful artist living in Vienna at the time and was highly supported by the wealthy Avant-guard Jewish community who had made their wealth during the industrial revolution. Klimt was celebrated for his rejection of the Vienna Academy’s traditional teachings on art.

Klimt spend years on the piece, making several hundred sketches of Adele before finally finishing the work in 1907. It was the last work in the artist’s gold series, of which there are four paintings, all heavily decorated in gold leaf – a revolution at the time. Klimt’s second portrait of Adele, was completed in 1912. The family also owned several landscape works by the artist.

Klimt’s gold portrait shows Adele sitting in a high-back chair, in an elaborately decorated detailed dress. Adele sits within a golden room, showing only a hint of the green floor to the bottom left of the canvas.

This work hung in the family’s home in Austria until it was confiscated after Adele and Ferdinand’s family home was raided by the Nazi’s claiming the family owned tax to the new Nazi government. The paintings, considered too contemporary for Hitler, were then sold to Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, as they had caught the eye of the museum officials. This also included the Klimt landscapes which the family owned. There the paintings remained. The family, who fled to Vancouver and America during the war tried to recover the works after the war ended, claiming they were rightfully theirs, but due to exportation restrictions, their requests were unsuccessful. The family abandoned the idea of retrieving their lost works.

In 1998 however, it all changed.

1998 saw the seizing of two paintings by Austrian painter Egon Schiele during an exhibition in New York as they were believed to be stolen. Loaned to the museum from the Austrian Government, the Austrian’s were outraged at the claim they held stolen art in their collections – stating all stolen works had been returned to their rightful owners after the war ended. Journalist Hubertus Czernin, decided to investigate by delving into the museum archives in Austria – upon where he discovered the exportation restrictions and other extortionate measures imposed on the owners of works seized by the Nazi’s during the war meaning they were unable to rightfully reclaim their works.

So, Hubertus Czernin did what Journalists do best – called Austria out on this via a series of articles exposing their dodgy history of art acquisitions. The government backtracked and imposed a new law stating any works which were unable to be returned under the old exportation measures could now be claimed by the heirs, providing they held substantial evidence of this.

Upon hearing this, Maria Altman, the niece of Adele Bloch – Bauer who was living in California at the time, hired a lawyer and put in a claim to return her family’s Klimt paintings. The Austrian government denied Maria’s claim.

Unhappy with this outcome, Maria and her lawyer filed a law suit against the country of Austria in the USA which eventually, after a 6-year legal battle back and forth, ended up at the United States Supreme Court as Austria wanted to dismiss the claim. The supreme court ruled in Maria’s favour and after agreeing to a litigation between Austria and Maria’s lawyer – the Austrian government agreed to return the works to Maria, deciding they did not want to purchase the paintings from her.

But the story does not end there!

After an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum in 2006, which saw all of the family’s 5 Klimt paintings on display together, Maria – then 90 years old, decided to sell the paintings at Christie’s auction house in New York. The decision to sell caused a whirlwind of excitement, press interest and bids to own these unique works by Klimt.

Portrait of Adele Bloch – Bauer I was purchased by Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder empire, for a mouth-watering (and record breaking) $135 million. At the point of sale, only one other work had ever sold for over $100 million, Picasso’s Boy wi

th Pipe. Adele’s portrait is on permanent display at the Neue Galerie in New York.

Portrait of Adele Bloch – Bauer II was purchased by non-other than Oprah


Looting was a massive problem throughout World War Two, as Hitler was collecting priceless works to found his own museum in his hometown.

Looted art is still a modern-day issue with works still being traced and returned to their ancestors. Although some works are feared to be lost forever as Nazi’s hid them in underground tunnels or destroyed them. More than 100,000 works are still not accounted for.

JM June 2020


Fun Fact: In 2015, Dame Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds stared in the movie adaptation. The film is called ‘Woman In Gold’.


Resources to watch:

Very quick video on the history of the art work:

Maria’s lawyer discusses the case at the University of California in 2015. This is an EXCELLENT talk if you want to really know the ins and outs of the case and the history of the Bloch-Bauer family. I would highly recommend if you have a spare hour.

Make yourself a cup of tea and get comfy. You will not regret watching this:

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