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It's been 25 years since, in Vienna's Belvedere Gallery, I laid eyes - for the only time - on Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Though it's an undeniably beautiful piece of art, my reaction on hearing that it had been recently purchased for an unprecedented $135 million was the same as, presumably, most people's: Is this particular painting - or any artwork - really worth that much cash?
Those questions are essentially unanswerable in any objective fashion, although it's worth noting that no work by Klimt has ever fetched nearly that amount (only those by Van Gogh and Picasso have). Still, if American-Jewish cosmetics king Ronald Lauder was willing to pay such a sum to hang the portrait in New York City's Neue Gallerie, his privately-funded jewel-box of a museum of modern German and Austrian art, the question is essentially academic.
What's more, given the circumstances behind the sale, one might even regard this particular transaction as a priceless piece of artistic justice.
MY OWN VIEW on that latter point is undoubtedly colored by some personal experiences. That trip to Vienna I mentioned happened to be in the company of a family member who was a native-born son of the city lucky enough to escape Austria in 1938, just weeks after the Nazi-directed Anschluss (unification) with Germany. Touring the city with him, I visited the old apartment from whose windows, as a boy, he personally witnessed Adolf Hitler visiting the city in triumph while being greeted by cheering crowds.
He also told me the story of his father, a proud veteran of the Austrian army, who when forced to register with the Nazi authorities, greeted an official in the formal German manner, "Whom do I have the honor of addressing?" The official snapped back: "A Jew has no honor."
That night he went back to his family and told then they must do everything possible to escape the country.
Despite all this, this family member was still proud of his roots and had considerable nostalgia for his hometown. Not the Vienna of today, or of course of the Nazi era, but the prewar city where Jews played a significant - perhaps even dominant - role in creating the rich central-European cosmopolitan culture that produced Freud, Mahler, Schnitzler, Herzl, etc.
It also produced Adele, the cultured wife of wealthy Jewish manufacturer Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who hosted a renowned Viennese salon that attracted such prominent figures as the Art Nouveau master Gustav Klimt. The two were close friends (perhaps even lovers), and the affection between them is evident in Klimt's stunning 1907 portrait of Adele.
She died in 1924, and left behind a will signed with her husband that after his death her portrait and four other Klimt works they owned should be left to the Austrian government to be put on public display in the nation they had loved. But Ferdinand was also forced to leave Austria in haste in 1938, and the Nazi regime seized the family's artworks. He later revised his will, leaving the paintings instead to his closest surviving biological heirs.
UNFORTUNATELY, postwar Austrian governments (along with those of other European nations) have failed to adequately redress the issue of artwork stolen from Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The problems and complexities in seeing justice done in this matter are illustrated by an event I covered as a journalist 10 years ago - a public auction of the Mauerbach collection, a horde of some 8,000 artworks looted from Austrian Jews and stored under wraps for decades in a monastery outside Vienna until a media expose of its existence in the 1980s sparked a campaign for some kind of restitution.
Because most of the original owners and heirs of these works were all dead or could not be identified, they were sold in a benefit auction whose proceeds were donated to the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities. The auction raised some $14.5 million; although no small amount, I commented at the time to an expert on this issue that it seemed odd that the Mauerbach horde's large collection of 19th-century French paintings included not even one Impressionist work, whose value would have raised that number considerably.
Not odd at all, said this source. "There have been rumors for years that the Austrians picked out several of the best works at Mauerbach for their own museums before revealing it to the public. It has also been said that some officials - including Kurt Waldheim - personally helped themselves to some of the finest paintings there."
Happily, the portrait of Adele was spared that fate. Her niece and surviving heir, Maria Altmann, managed to retrieve her family's artworks after a long legal struggle, and it was she who sold it to Lauder.
In a recent Der Spiegel article titled "Austria bids farewell to 'Adele,'" the portrait's former proprietor, Belvedere Gallery director Gerbert Frodl, had this to say:
Der Spiegel: If the (Austrian) republic had been more conciliatory toward the rightful heir in its long-standing legal dispute over the Klimt paintings, the paintings could still be hanging in your museum in Vienna. What went wrong?
Frodl: That's a difficult question. I don't like to talk about what one should have done. But it is true that the possibility of a settlement existed at one time. Perhaps we could have kept two paintings and returned three.
Der Spiegel: Do you have a clear conscience in the matter?
Frodl: Why shouldn't I?
THIS IS why, even if it cost $135m. to get this painting out of Austria, it was worth every penny. I only wish Ron Lauder, who has already contributed so generously to Israel over the years (and has been involved in other Holocaust-related art controversies in his role as a director of the Museum of Modern Art), might have considered donating it to a museum in this country.
Still, today's New York City is probably the place closest both culturally and socially to the pre-war Vienna that Adele Bloch-Bauer so loved. So next time I'm in my own hometown, I'll be sure to drop into the Neue Gallerie and once again lay eyes on that lovely lady, knowing that at least this time, she's sitting in a far more suitable - and just - home.
The writer is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem office.
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