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Cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder's love affair with the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was painted in Vienna in 1907, began when Lauder was an adolescent on his first trip to the Austrian capital.
On Wednesday, the painting by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt - which Lauder purchased last month for a sum estimated at a record $135 million - will arrive at the Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Museum Mile, a museum for German and Austrian art that Lauder cofounded five years ago.
The painting will be installed as part of a special exhibition of five paintings by Klimt that belonged to the collection of the Jewish-Viennese couple Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. In 1938, the paintings were stolen by the Nazis.
"For me, this painting was very much about life in early 20th century Vienna and its thriving Jewish community," Lauder said Monday in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. Lauder is visiting Israel in his capacity as president of the Jewish National Fund.
"Over time, I became more and more fascinated by this era, but never forgot about this portrait," he said.
Lauder said he had visited the painting several times a year for several decades at its home in the Belvedere Galerie in Vienna.
Nevertheless, he said he knew little about its provenance until eight years ago, when he become involved in the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis.
In 1999, Maria Altmann and other heirs of the Bloch-Bauer family began efforts in the courts to recover the five paintings, which had belonged to Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. In January, they finally succeeded in having the works declared stolen property, and in March, they were returned to their rightful owners.
"Even after I knew the paintings would be leaving Austria, I found it hard to believe and held my breath until they arrived in Los Angeles," Lauder said. "It was a fascinating roller coaster of emotions, filled with uncertainty about whether they would actually arrive here - it was almost too good to be true."
Lauder then contacted the legal owners of the portrait, and negotiated its purchase for the Neue Galerie.
During WWII, the painting - considered one of Klimt's masterpieces - was renamed Woman in Gold, to hide its Jewish history, Lauder said. It is characterized by shades and textures of gold.
The painting arrived in New York on Friday, he said.
"For the first time, I had a chance to see it up close with no glass on it, and realized how many great details it contained," he said.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only woman portrayed twice by Klimt in a full-length portrait, and there has long been speculation that the artist and his sitter had a love affair. Adele Bloch-Bauer I, as the portrait is called, was the first of these two portraits.
The painting's new permanent location at the Neue Galerie, Lauder said, would be on the museum's second floor in a room dedicated to Klimt's work. On Tuesday, Bloch-Bauer's heirs will arrive in New York to see the painting installed.
When the painting goes on public display Wednesday, Lauder said, museum officials expect "enormous crowds." According to Lauder, the Bloch-Bauer's former residence in Vienna is very similar to the museum building.
"I think she would be delighted," he said when asked how he imagined the sitter and former owner of this painting would react if she could see it in its new home.
"New York today is what Vienna was back then," Lauder said. "I believe she would feel very much at home with us."
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