In the early 20th century, more precisely in the year of 1903, a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family commissioned a portrait by a painter named Gustav Klimt. Klimt was at the time one of the most prominent artists in Austria, although somewhat controversial. The subject of the painting was to be a woman named Adele Bloch-Bauer, who would receive the painting as a birthday gift later that year by her husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. At least, that was the idea. Klimt took much pride in his work and didn’t present the final product until 1907. A time span of four years is indeed remarkable, but by examining the work, it’s more than reasonable that it would take more than just a few months. Although it’s classified as an oil painting, the finish surface is covered with leaves of silver and gold, mainly the latter. It’s simply an expression of golden beauty. A masterpiece that could be adored and worshipped for endless hours if seen in-person. The beauty of the painting is, however, shadowed by the both tragic and compelling destiny that later would be reality…

Klimt exhibited the painting just after it was completed. The response wasn’t the finest as many critics had negative reactions with remarks such as the painting being bizarre and vulgar. That didn’t change the opinions of Ferdinand and Adele, who hang it with pride in their home in Vienna. They loved the painting and considered it as their finest property.

In early 1925, Adele sadly passed away with meningitis disease. She did, however, write a will two years prior to her death. The will stated that the portrait would, after her husband’s death, be given to the Vienna-based Galerie Belvedere. During the upcoming years, the painting was exhibited time-to-time at galleries in Austria, receiving much gratitude from viewers as Klimt’s reputation gradually improved. 

As years passed – the Nazi party in Germany successively got more established and gained power in 1933. Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, spent many years in Austria before moving to Germany. A year prior to the Second World War, Hitler’s idea of a “Greater Germany” became a reality after the annexation of Austria into Germany. The first step was the campaign against the Jewish people in Vienna, who were forced out of their homes. The Germans plundered all the valuable property of the Jews. A wealthy family like the Bloch-Bauer’s was the perfect target. What happened to the golden painting, you may wonder? Perhaps not surprisingly, it got stolen and became property of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who had a great interest in art, wasn’t really pleased with the golden portrait, mainly due to the portrait being of a Jewish woman. In 1941, the Nazis sold the Klimt painting to Galerie Belvedere, whom Adele mentioned in her will. The only criterion was to rename the painting to “Dame in Gold”, which is German for “Lady in Gold”. The reason was to hide the Jewish subject matter. Although the war was still on-going, one could at least be delighted that the portrait of Adele ended up at the art gallery of her choice.

A year after the war, the Austrian state declared that all stolen goods by the Nazis would be returned to their original owners if it in some way could be proven. The Bloch-Bauer family regained many of their possessions, but the golden portrait was out of the question. 

The family got informed that the painting now was a property of the gallery in accordance with Adele’s will. Ferdinand, Adele’s widower, essentially wrote his own will in mid-1945, just months before his death; in which he stated that all of his belongings would be given to his nephew and two nieces. Ferdinand didn’t mention the Klimt painting as he had no idea of its existence. He thought it was destroyed by the Nazis. Obviously, the painting wasn’t destroyed, as it was presented in Galerie Belvedere for many, many years to come. By time it became the finest and most esteemed piece in the gallery.

In 1998, the Austrian government formed a committee for art restitution concerning gods that once were stolen by the Nazis. This was of interest to a woman named Maria Altmann. Maria was in fact the niece of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, and the only still-living person that Ferdinand mentioned in his will. She felt that the painting did indeed belong to her because of the fact that it got stolen by the Nazis and then sold to the gallery, not just given to the gallery as stated in Adele’s will. That didn’t end in a successful proceeding, but she later did found a way that would persuade the jury. The painting was in fact commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer in 1903, who paid for it. It then became the property of him and his wife Adele. Legally, after Adele’s death, the painting belonged only to Ferdinand. Therefore, Adele’s will wasn’t binding as the painting wasn’t hers to give away. In 2006, after years of legal issues and negotiations, Maria finally won the battle and received the painting as the rightful owner.

This became worldwide news, and Maria got many offers from collectors and museums who wanted to purchase the golden portrait. She felt responsible not to sell it to a private collector but instead to an institution of some kind that would publically exhibit the painting for all eternity. In late 2006, the painting changed owner to Ronald Lauder, founder of the Neue Galerie in New York for an astonishing worldwide record amount of 135 million U.S. dollars, meaning that the artwork that once was rejected by Hitler now became the most expensive painting in the world.

/Alexander Bitar

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