Painting sells for $135M

Published: Monday, June 19 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

A dazzling gold-flecked 1907 portrait by Gustav Klimt has been purchased for the Neue Galerie in Manhattan by the cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million, the highest sum ever paid for a painting.
The portrait, of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Jewish sugar industrialist and the hostess of a prominent Vienna salon, is considered one of the artist's masterpieces. For years, it was the focus of a restitution battle between the Austrian government and a niece of Bloch-Bauer who said it was seized, along with four other Klimt paintings, by the Nazis during World War II.
In January all five paintings were awarded to the niece, Maria Altmann, now 90, who lives in Los Angeles, and other family members.
Although confidentiality agreements surrounding the sale forbid Lauder to disclose the price, experts familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he paid $135 million.
"This is our Mona Lisa," said Lauder, a founder of the five-year-old Neue Galerie, a tiny museum devoted entirely to German and Austrian fine and decorative arts. "It is a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition."
Bloch-Bauer died in 1925 at 43. In her will she requested that the painting and four others by Klimt be left to Austria upon her husband's death. But when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, he fled, leaving his possessions behind. The Nazi government confiscated his property.
Before Bloch-Bauer died in November 1945, he drafted a new will leaving his entire estate to three children of his brother Gustav: Robert, Luise and Maria. Of the three, only Maria Altmann is still living.
In 2000 Altmann and the other heirs sued the Austrian government in the United States, and the case wended its way to the Supreme Court, which in June 2004 ruled in her favor. In January an arbitration tribunal in Austria awarded the heirs the five paintings.
Experts estimate that the other four paintings — a second portrait of Adele, from 1911, and three landscapes — are together worth some $100 million. Their fate has yet to be determined.
"I can't decide," Altmann said. "Maybe after they leave the Neue Galerie, they will go to Christie's. I very much hope they end up in museums. But for now I am just happy they have a home at the Neue Galerie. It is very deserved. I couldn't have wished for a better place."

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