Los Angeles, CA – June 2006
The smell of chicken dumpling soup wafts through Maria Altmann’s home. A collection of antique timepieces is illuminated behind a glass case in the living room. Old photos of friends and family seem to chronicle a great life. Wisdom exudes off the walls. Outside her redwood bungalow, blooming flowers stretch for attention surrounded by a swimming pool and the ambiance of her Cheviot Hills neighborhood. At the center of this charmed life: a 90-year-old great-grandmother full of elegance, who always carries herself like a lady.
Wearing a neatly tied scarf, French toilet water and a graceful smile, Altmann says, with a thick, prewar Viennese-German accent, “I used to be a very beautiful girl.” Seven decades ago, people would have lined up to take her picture. Seven decades… that’s also nearly the same amount of time it took her to right the awful wrong that was done to her family. It’s the $325 million dollar story of the gold portrait and its masterpiece companions. It’s about injustice, anger and now, finally, revenge – the reason why this proud, witty woman is along for the ride at a media circus parading through her home.
Vienna, Austria – March 1938
Maria Altmann was a beautiful bride of only four months when the Gestapo came knocking. She felt the chill of that blustery, winter day as she opened her apartment door. The man standing there was short and neatly dressed in a business suit. He said his name was Landau and he was sent to collect taxes for the German government. The Nazis had just annexed Austria and started a campaign to loot wealthy Jewish families. When Landau asked to see Altmann’s jewelry, she could see ruthlessness in his eyes.
The notorious Nazi ransacked Altmann’s place, taking the earrings and necklace she wore at her wedding. He even took the engagement ring off her finger. “I was terrified they’d take my husband,” Altmann recounts. “So I said, ‘There’s more jewelry in the safe.’ I gave them everything hoping they would leave Fritz with me.” But by the end of that day in 1938, Altmann’s diamonds and dignity were gone, and so was her husband. Landau took Fritz Altmann “hostage” and threw him in a concentration camp. The couple, who’d just finished an extended honeymoon, was now in Hell.
Fritz spent several months in the dank Dachau prison. The only condition of his release was an awful example of extortion; the Nazis demanded that Fritz’s brother, Bernard, sign over his successful cashmere sweater business to them. Bernard, who’d escaped to France, didn’t hesitate. Family had always come first. Fritz was free, but not really. The Germans moved he and Maria to a small apartment in Berlin, placing them under house arrest. Then, one night, under the cover of darkness and a fake doctor’s appointment, the Altmanns made their escape. The risk could have been fatal. Even so, they saw no alternative.
With Bernard’s help, they trekked the dangerous route into Holland, and eventually, England. The British welcomed them with open arms, helping Bernard build a new sweater factory in Liverpool. Fritz, meantime, was intent on building his marriage back up. “I’ll never forget the day he came home and said he’d gotten my engagement ring back from the Nazis,” Maria says. “He put it on my finger and I believed it. Of course, he had the ring copied. But I so wanted to believe it.”
In reality, the Altmanns never got any of their jewelry back. Landau gave Maria’s wedding necklace to Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Göring. And, like the brutal bastard he was, Göring gave it to his wife as a present. No one knows where it is now. The immaculate necklace was originally a gift from Maria’s uncle, Ferdinand. It had belonged to his wife, Adele, who died in 1925 from meningitis. Maria was nine when her aunt died. “She was very cool, fabulously elegant and an interesting woman,” Altmann remembers.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was thin, beautiful and no ordinary turn-of-the-century woman. She was the hostess of a famed Viennese salon and surrounded herself with interesting people, partying with intellectuals, artists and musicians. “She should have lived in the world today,” Altmann says. “She would have gone to a university and been a politician.”
One of Adele’s party pals was artist and decorator Gustav Klimt. Klimt started the Austrian Secession Movement, the Viennese version of Art Nouveau, and is best known for his ornate painting, The Kiss. He was a master at capturing the intelligence, cultural energy and sexuality of Vienna at that time. Tension oozes out of Klimt’s paintings as they try to tempt fate. His art seems to make eternity a reality and death inevitable at the same time. But it was his quest for ecstasy and embrace of glamor that Adele so admired. It’s what made them good friends and possibly lovers – it was rumored, but never proven, that they had a long affair.
Ferdinand was head of the Austrian sugar industry. He had tons of money and loved spending it on art. In the early-1900’s, he commissioned Klimt to do two portraits of his wife. Klimt, in the best period of his artistic career at the time, was methodical in his approach to this work. Adele posed for him countless times as he sketched feverishly. He did more than 100 preparatory drawings and, in the end, it would take three years to bring his vision of her to life on canvas. By all accounts, Klimt felt this portrait would be a universal celebration of beautiful women.
The elegant and erotic Adele Bloch-Bauer I, or “Golden Adele,” has been called the Austrian Mona Lisa. Like da Vinci’s masterpiece, this oil and gold-encrusted painting is romantic in its mystery. It’s contemporary and medieval at the same time. Her hair, jewelry and dress paint her as an empress, her serpent-like hands exaggerate her sensuality. The ancient Egyptian eyes of Horus give her body stability, yet she appears to be floating in an abstract sea of gold. Klimt manipulated the surface of the canvas by applying gold-laced paint, creating true three-dimensional relief and a reflective surface.There are all kinds of secrets hidden in the Byzantine mosaic background, including her initials “AB” everywhere. It’s clear Klimt not only painted a person here, but attempted to capture her aura. What’s not clear is its message. Was Klimt portraying Adele’s life of wealth and prestige as liberating or suffocating?
Her carefully constructed, neutral facial expression doesn’t give much away. Is she reserved or resigned? Quietly content or ashamedly sad? Adele had lots of layers, and perhaps that’s the point. She had the means to do what she wanted but never seemed happy at home. Although she got pregnant three times, it always led to a miscarriage or stillborn. It got more devastating each time. Socially, she was also torn between her role as housewife and her excitement about Europe’s social revolution.
Klimt, on the other hand, knew exactly where he fit in. He was a bohemian who pushed the boundaries of Viennese taste. He was captivated by sexuality. He often drew naked women masturbating, sometimes while wearing a hooded cloak with nothing on underneath. In 1918, he died at the age of 55 from a stroke; afterward, several mistresses came forward claiming Klimt had fathered 14 children.
In 1912, five years after he finished “Golen Adele,” Klimt painted a life-sized version of Mrs. Bloch-Bauer. The colorful mix of green and lavender demonstrates the shift in Klimt’s style. In Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Klimt again blends various artistic influences with a similar ambiguity of space as in the original painting. This time, decorative Chinese motifs fill the background. Adele is the only patroness he painted twice and the best example of Klimt’s artistic evolution.
Affair or not, Adele always had her husband’s heart. She did her best to do the family thing, too. “Because she couldn’t have her own kids, it seemed like she didn’t have a lot of time for us,” Maria says. “But I always looked up to her.” The Bloch-Bauers were a very close bunch by action and by blood. The two Bloch boys married the two Bauer girls. So, Maria’s mother was Adele’s sister and Maria’s father was Ferdinand’s brother. Sounds complicated but their love was not. Each Sunday, Ferdiand and Adele invited Maria, her parents and her four older siblings over to their palais for brunch. It was a huge building on the finest street in Vienna, near the Opera House. Maria still remembers how gorgeous it was. Fine art, tapestries, porcelain and furniture filled the place.
Maria’s wedding was likely the last great memory of Ferdinand’s life. By the time the Gestapo showed up at Maria and Fritz’s apartment, Ferdinand fled to his summer home, a large castle and estate near Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Nazis, meantime, levied a bogus tax bill on him confiscating his sugar company and his Vienna palais. In early-1939, Eric Führer, a Nazi liquidation lawyer, put Ferdinand’s estate up for sale. His famous 400-piece porcelain collection went to the highest bidder. Some 19th century Austrian art went to Hitler while some of the Klimt pieces went to the Austrian Gallery. Führer kept Adele Bloch-Bauer I for his own personal collection.
As the Nazis divided up Ferdinand’s art collection, it also continued its annexation of Europe. When Sudentland became part of Greater Germany, Ferdinand was forced to move again. Friends helped him get to Zurich, Switzerland. At the same time, Nazi Commander Reinhard Heydrich moved into Bloch-Bauer’s Prague castle where he planned to finish mapping out his “Final Solution.” The plan was to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe and the Soviet Union – an estimated 11,000,000 people.
But one day in 1942, after leaving Ferdinand’s castle, Heydrich was ambushed and assassinated. Hitler demanded revenge. He ordered the execution of the Czech agents who took down Heydrich and called for the destruction of the small mining town of Lidice on false charges that it had helped the assassins. On June 10, all 172 men and boys in the village were executed, the women and children were sent to concentration camps and each building housing them was burned to the ground.
Four months later, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer wrote in his second-to-last will: “In an illegal manner, a tax penalty of one million Reichsmarks was imposed and my entire estate in Vienna was confiscated and sold off.” When the war ended in 1945, Ferdinand was almost penniless. He died in November of that year having never recovered any of his property. Bloch-Bauer’s last will revoked all others and left his entire estate to his brother’s kids: Maria, Robert and Luise. His intention was to keep the Klimt pieces in the family.
Just before Ferdinand died, he sent a letter to Maria and Fritz telling them to make a good life for themselves in America. And that’s exactly what the Altmanns were doing. They arrived in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1940. Their first son was born a short time later on U.S. soil. “All four of our children were born American” is a fact Maria states with pride. “America has been so good to us.” In 1942, they made their way to Los Angeles and became U.S. citizens by 1945. The moves came at a time when her extended family was in shambles. Some died in concentration camps, others lost everything.
The Bloch-Bauers were spread out across the globe. Although Ferdinand left all his fortunes to Maria and her siblings, he had control of none of it when he died. So, the kids had nothing to show for it. Anti-Semitism and hostility still existed in parts of Europe and it made recovering the stolen property nearly impossible. The post-war Austrian government put up all kinds of legal hurdles to keep Jews from recovering their looted artwork.
By now, the Bloch-Bauer Klimts, including “Golden Adele,” were hanging in Austria’s Galerie Belvedere. Records were changed to show the art was donated. The government and museum cited Adele’s will as the legal tender to ownership. The facts were twisted and now the heirs’ hands were tied. All they could do was watch as pieces from his extensive porcelain collection went up for auction on the open market. Owners and buyers couldn’t be sued under “bona fide” purchaser rules.
Maria and Fritz moved on. They were getting well-acquainted with American life. The eldest Altmann son played with Lena Horn’s son, ironically, on Horn Street in Los Angeles. “Humphrey Bogart lived across the street,” Maria says. “We could hear him and his wife yelling all the way to our house. They were always drunk.” Fritz took a job with Lockheed Martin designing aerospace technology. Maria ran a clothing boutique. They had three sons and a daughter and were a close-knit bunch. Mom and Dad talked openly to the kids about how the war changed their family – telling stories about people the youngsters only knew by name.
The children went to school in Los Angeles, enjoyed the sun and the beach and grew into fine people. Maria and Fritz were never bitter; they chose to enjoy life instead. Fritz was a nice-looking gentleman, a hard worker and great father. He loved opera and was a fine singer in his own right. He lived a full life before passing away in 1994. Maria became the lone Bloch-Bauer heir left after her sister, Luise, died a few years later.
For half a century, Adele Bloch-Bauer I hung in Vienna. It was on the cover of the museum’s guide book and had become part of the county’s cultural identity. But in the mid-1980’s questions began to surface about the origin of much of Austria’s art. The tight-lipped government and tightly-sealed records began to crack under enormous pressure. In 1998, Austria passed new laws opening up its archives to the public and a feisty Viennese reporter was about to blow the lid off the looted art controversy.
Hubertus Czernin, a respected writer, started digging. He found that victims of the Holocaust were still being victimized by Austria’s greedy government. He also uncovered a letter written by Eric Führer, a Nazi liquidation lawyer, dated 1941. In it, Führer officially transferred Adele Bloch-Bauer I to the Austrian Museum. It was signed “Heil Hitler.”
The records showed Ferdinand did donate one Klimt landscape to the museum, but Czernin believed the others belonged to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. Thousands of additional pieces in Austria’s art collection also came into question. A separate panel investigating the claims confirmed Czernin’s research and the government backpedaled fast. Just a few months after the facts were revealed, Austria’s president signed a new restitution bill into law.
Czernin sent a copy of his findings to Maria Altmann’s attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg. It was the first time Altmann learned that the Austrian Museum had lied to her brother’s attorney about Adele’s will and that she had been swindled out of her inheritance. Maria was angry – and so too would the Austrian public be when newspapers reported the Klimt paintings would have to be returned. Feeling political heat, the government reneged. While hundreds of artworks were returned to their rightful pre-war owners, the Klimt paintings stayed put. Altmann wouldn’t stand for it.
At the time, Schoenberg was mainly doing mundane contract cases in Los Angeles. But this injustice really chafed him. It became his passion to get these paintings back. “I remember going to the Austrian museum as a kid,” Schoenberg says. “I remember my mom saying Adele Bloch-Bauer, that painting up there, she’s a relative of my friend, Maria Altmann.” Other pieces that hung in the museum had Schoenberg family connections. Similar to the Altmanns, all four of Schoenberg’s grandparents, including famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, escaped Nazi Germany and moved to California.
In June 1999, an Austrian government committee agreed to return a smattering of the Bloch-Bauer collection – some Klimt drawings and porcelain settings – to its heirs. But the committee formally blocked the transfer of the five Klimt paintings Altmann felt entitled to. Schoenberg suggested an independent arbitrator sort it all out, but Austria refused. So at the age of 84, Maria Altmann filed suit. Filing a lawsuit in Austria, however, is an expensive proposition. Schoenberg unsuccessfully tried to get the court fees waived. If Altmann was going to make her case in an Austrian court of law, it would cost her as much as a million dollars, a figure she simply could not afford. Austria had won round one, but Schoenberg wasn’t done fighting.
In August 2000, he sued the Austrian government in the United States under a little-used clause in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Austria tried to block the suit at every level of the judicial system. But in 2004, this very important case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices would not rule on who should get the paintings, only if Altmann’s claims could be heard in an American courtroom. It was a long shot but the chance of a lifetime for this L.A. lawyer.
Schoenberg is a slender guy who doesn’t look like he could hurt anyone. But he’s got the mental toughness of ten men. “Randy has fabulous endurance and knowledge,” Altmann says of her attorney. It’s any litigator’s dream to argue in front of the nation’s highest court, and Schoenberg was in for the ultimate David vs. Goliath legal battle. Not only was the entire country of Austria against him, other countries wrote briefs asking the justices to rule against Maria Altmann. Many nations felt a decision in her favor could put scrutiny on their own museums in the future.
Schoenberg went for the gold in that courtroom and most observers thought he did a good job. A local Washington reporter wasn’t so sure. The journalist told Schoenberg he’d been watching the justices’ reactions for decades and was certain he’d lose. Schoenberg was back at his L.A. office when that same reporter called one June day. “I guess I was wrong,” he said. “You won.” The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Maria Altmann. Her case would finally be heard in an open courtroom.
But rather than muddling through an expensive and lengthy trial and appeals process, Schoenberg decided to gamble. He convinced Altmann and the Austrian government to argue the case in front of an arbitration panel in Europe, winner take all. Schoenberg was up against Austria’s best attorneys and even presented his case in German. In January 2006, the arbitration panel made up of two Austrian professors and one Austrian lawyer, unanimously sided with Maria Altmann. After 68 years, the five Klimt paintings were finally going home. “Professionally, it’s been the greatest case of my career and a tremendous honor to represent Maria,” Schoenberg says. “It’s incredibly fulfilling to see the paintings come to the United States, taking the same path its owners took.”
Two months later, a separate arbitration panel awarded Altmann a stake in her uncle’s $6 million palais – the same place that once housed the Klimt paintings and the center of Maria’s family memories. Despite the long ordeal, Altmann says she has no bad feelings towards Austria and its people. “I want to thank (the panel) for their courage and honesty,” Altmann says. “I was very angry with what happened. But now that we have resolved it, I try to see the good side of it.”
It was tough for the more than 8,000 visitors that crowded Austria’s Galerie Belvedere to find any good in the resolution that final weekend. Many had sad faces as they waited in the freezing cold to get a final glimpse of the beloved Klimt pieces. Many in the art community called on the Austrian government to buy the paintings from Maria Altmann. But the government turned down the plea and the pieces were shipped to Los Angeles. Dr. Verena Traeger, art historian, museum curator and a lecturer at the University of Vienna, says, “The loss of these paintings to an art-appreciating public in Austria is nothing short of a tragedy. Their undisputed art historical value and their obvious material value should not be confused.”
Traeger felt that the eighth wealthiest country in the world could have afforded the paintings. She felt the government, whose investments that year included millions to raise the speed limit on a few kilometers of roadway and out-dated anti-aircraft defense, let its people down. “That the government failed to respect the importance of our Jewish cultural ‘inheritance’ by not purchasing these paintings, is somewhat disquieting. The whole topic has become somewhat polemic. In short – utter confusion and cultural shock.” Traeger and her colleagues established an independent interdisciplinary platform of Austrian art historians, conservators and representatives of culture. They want the Austrian people to be fully aware of the historical importance of these paintings and put pressure on the government to preserve the country’s artistic identity.
Altmann and the four heirs of her deceased siblings gave Americans a chance to get acquainted with the much-revered but seldom seen Austrian artist. In the spring of 2006, they loaned the five paintings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where they remained on display for three months. “This is a tremendous, historic moment for us to premiere the Klimt paintings in the U.S. We were deeply grateful to the Altmann family,” LACMA Senior Curator Stephanie Barron said before the exhibit. “Adele Bloch-Bauer I is an icon of 20th century art. To me, it represents the magic and splendor of turn-of-the-century Vienna – the nexus of art and culture, theatre, literature. It all comes together for me in this painting.”
For Altmann, the painting simply represents family. She’s happy to have it and the others home. “To see them here is a dream come true,” Altmann said during their unveiling at the museum on April 4, 2006. “Los Angeles has been my hometown for so long, so to have them here is beyond words. I’m going to come here very often and bring friends to see them.”
Ron Lauder first saw Adele Bloch-Bauer I as a teenager at Galerie Belvedere. “The piece overwhelms you with its beauty and power,” he said. When the painting went on the market later that year, the cosmetics mogul jumped at the chance to own it. He wrote a check for $135 million making “Golden Adele” the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, surpassing Picasso’s Boy With a Pipe (1905) which went for $104 million in 2004.
Lauder is not just a make-up guy; he knows art and cares about its historical significance. He spent years trying to recover Jewish-owned art looted by the Nazis as U.S. Ambassador to Austria and as member of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. Adele is one of the most important paintings of the 20th century, and Lauder felt it was important to keep her in the public eye. In 2001, he co-founded Neue Gallerie in New York. The small museum specializes in turn-of-the-century German and Austrian art and in late-2006, it became the permanent home of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. “Mr. Lauder has a great understanding of Austria and a great love for Klimt,” Altmann said. “It was very important for the heirs and for my aunt Adele that the painting be displayed in a museum.” Lauder said, “This is our Mona Lisa.”
In November 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer II was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York fetching almost $88 million. The three remaining landscapes sold for $104 million and the proceeds were divided up amongst the heirs. While the Altmann family is now set financially, the paintings did bring with them one small downside – “the curse of the cane,” as Maria calls it. “My uncle Ferdinand always needed a cane to get around back then. I’ve never had any problem until now.” Maria has recently developed a mild case of arthritis that has hobbled her a bit. Couple that with all the museum and media attention, and Altmann is flat-out tired. But she’s the only one in her bloodline to take this journey full circle. While reliving some of these experiences has been painful, it truly has helped her put her life in perspective.
Maria has six grandchildren now and a few years ago she became a great-grandmother. “He’s the cutest little thing. He just laughs and laughs. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s so happy. He doesn’t know about any of the wrongs that go on in life. He has no clue about the Nazis or Iraq. He just laughs all day.” It’s an image Altmann will always treasure, knowing the preservation of what’s sacred to a family is what matters most in this world.
Update – Maria Altmann died in 2011 at the age of 94. She is survived by three sons, Charles of Cheviot Hills, Peter of Puget Sound, Wash., and James of Agoura Hills; a daughter, Margie Crain of Solana Beach; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Viennese journalist who uncovered the documents that proved the Bloch-Bauer heirs had been robbed, died just a few weeks before Golden Adele was sold. Hubertus Czernin’s work was instrumental in Altmann’s recovery of the Klimts and paved the way for other Jewish owners to reclaim their stolen art. Czernin lost his battle with a rare cell disorder. He was 50. In 2015, the feature film “Woman in Gold” was released starring Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren (Maria Altmann) and Ryan Reynolds (E. Randol Shoenberg) — bringing the decades-long drama over the golden portrait to the silver screen.
Written by Ben Bamsey for Artworks Magazine and “CNN Newsroom”
Photography by Gina Taro