Saga of the restituted Klimts

The four recently restituted Bloch-Bauer paintings by Klimt to be offered at Christie's makes for its most important auction ever in NY.

September 28, 2006 14:15
4 minute read.
Saga of the restituted Klimts

klimt painting 298.88. (photo credit: )


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The four recently restituted Bloch-Bauer paintings by Gustav Klimt to be offered at Christie's evening sale of impressionist and modern art on November 8 makes for Christie's most important auction ever in New York. As reported earlier, the four canvases came from a group of five painted by Klimt nearly a century ago and were finally restituted to the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer earlier this year. The Klimts have recently been on view at blockbuster exhibitions on both the West and East coasts. And then there was this year's record-setting sale of the best of the group, Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I to Ronald Lauder's Neue Galerie in New York, the most expensive painting ever sold. Lauder paid $130m. Maria Altmann, niece of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, was reported saying that: "These paintings, their restitution, the subsequent display in Los Angeles and New York, along with extensive media coverage, have informed millions of people that, in this particular case, justice prevailed." Earlier this month The Neue Galerie announced the extension until October 9 of its Klimt exhibition, Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. The exhibition is led by Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, Klimt's golden masterwork, and includes the four other works to be offered at Christie's: Adele Bloch Bauer II; Houses in Unterach on Lake Atter (H user in Unterach am Attersee); Apple Tree I (Apfelbaum I); Birch Forest (Buchenwald). The four works are expected to realize in excess of $93 million. Adele Bloch-Bauer II (estimate: $40 million - $60 million), depicts Adele in a less formal way than her golden portrait, one of the last in which Klimt used gold leaf. A pattern of red, green, blue and pink filled with Asian-inspired figures and flowers supports the still splendid-looking figure of Adele dressed in whites and greys. Besides the outburst of colors, Klimt's second version of Adele differs from the first one in the way it clearly searches for the depths of her soul and mind, a feature which Klimt, duly impressed by the works of Kokoschka and Schiele, might have adopted from his younger colleagues. Houses in Unterach on Lake Atter, 1916, painted when Klimt spent the summer months with the Fl ge family in Weissenbach, masterfully ignores all rules of perspective: the smooth facades of the houses appear to merge with and burst from the surrounding trees. Throughout his career, Klimt visited and revisited trees as subject matter, often even devoting his full attention to the texture and colors of one single specimen. Apple Tree I (Apfelbaum I)(estimate: $15 million - $25 million), was painted in 1911 or 1912 and is an example of Klimt's unique method to render the tree through gradations and shades of colors rather than to structure it formally. The result is a tree alive and breathing, its foliage touched by a floating breeze while rays of light play games with the leaves. The Tree of Life. Birch Forest (Buchenwald)(estimate: $20 million - $30 million), the earliest work by Klimt to be offered, is a name with an ominous ring to it but dates from 1903, being one of Klimt's few wood scenes executed by the artist. It is in the wood paintings that Klimt connected with Impressionism. The palette is extraordinary. Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was one of the founding members and the first president of the Vienna Secession movement. He began his career as a painter of interior murals in large public buildings and later moved on to portraits and landscapes which he executed in his very distinct, elegant style. His erotic paintings and drawings of women masturbating scandalized Vienna; some of the latter can be seen today at the Neue Galerie. Klimt drew inspiration from a variety of sources: Egyptian, Byzantine, medieval European paintings, Henri Matisse and Japanese Ukiyo-e. Most of Klimt's collectors were Jews and he spent much time with Jewish friends at their summer lakeside homes. His lifelong love was a Jewish fashion designer. Klimt died in the great influenza epidemic, as did his brilliant Austrian contemporary Egon Schiele. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was a wealthy Austrian industrialist who had made his fortune in the sugar industry and supported the arts. Bloch-Bauer's wife, Adele, was the only sitter painted twice by the artist. Klimt's second picture of her, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912 is the one now being offered by Christie's. Adele Bloch-Bauer had indicated in her will that her Klimts should eventually be donated to the Austrian State Gallery; she died in 1925. Her widowed and childless husband was forced to flee Austria when the Nazis took over. His property, including the Klimt paintings, was confiscated in 1938. The five paintings were eventually placed in Vienna's Gallery Belvedere. Bloch-Bauer died in 1946. In 2000, the Bloch-Bauer heirs began a protracted court battle in the United States, following efforts originally initiated in 1998 in Austria. The family ultimately brought its case before the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 2004 that United States courts had jurisdiction to decide the case. The parties ultimately submitted the case to binding arbitration in Austria, and in January 2006, an Austrian arbitration panel unanimously determined that the paintings should be returned to the heirs under Austria's 1998 art restitution law.

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