NEW YORK—On June 19 Neue Galerie, New York, acquired the rare gold-period work Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), for a reported $135 million, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold. The price tops the record for the costliest painting known to have been sold at auction—Pablo Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe, 1905, which brought $104.2 million at Sotheby’s in May 2004 (ANL, 5/25/04).
Neue Galerie cofounder and president Ronald S. Lauder called the purchase a “once-in-a-lifetime acquisition and a defining moment for the Neue Galerie. With this dazzling painting, Klimt created one of his greatest works of art.”
It is one of a group of five works by Klimt that were recently restituted to the heirs of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a prominent Austrian businessman and art collector, who owned them together with his wife, Adele. The paintings had been seized by the Nazis in 1938, along with much of the contents of the couple’s home in Vienna. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer died in Switzerland in 1945. Childless, he left his estate to his niece Maria Altmann, presently living in Los Angeles, and two of her siblings.
In an interview with ARTnewsletter, Steven Thomas, an attorney for Altmann and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, pointed out that, contrary to some press reports, “the painting was not sold to Mr. Lauder; it was sold to and acquired by the Neue Galerie. Some news articles have stated Mr. Lauder purchased the painting, and others have reported that he bought and gave it to the museum; however, Mr. Lauder did not purchase the painting.”
Neue Galerie deputy director Scott Gutterman confirms that although Lauder is “the prime supporter of the museum,” technically it was the museum that acquired the portrait.
Thomas, a partner at Irell & Manella, Los Angeles, and head of the firm’s art-law practice, says Lauder was “tireless, dedicated and passionate in his efforts to address the family’s goals and in the pursuit of the painting on behalf of Neue Galerie.”
For the past few decades, the paintings have been in the Gallery Belvedere, Vienna, whose ownership claim was based on an earlier will written by Adele Bloch-Bauer in 1923, two years before her death from meningitis in 1925 at age 43. Information related to the case was made public when the Austrian government passed a law in 1998 that opened archives and facilitated restitution claims.
Six years ago attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, seeking the return of the portrait and four other Klimt paintings, sued the Austrian government on behalf of the Bloch-Bauer heirs. The suit was upheld in a June 2004 decision by the United States Supreme Court. And this past January a three-judge panel in Austria unanimously decided in favor of Altmann and the other Bloch-Bauer heirs.
The five paintings have been on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since early April, the first time they have been exhibited together in the United States. They are scheduled to be on display at Neue Galerie from July 13-Sept. 18.
Thomas says the heirs “had certain goals and desires” with regard to Adele I, including their “seeking a commitment that the painting be on permanent public display within an appropriate
context.” Thomas reports that other potential purchasers had made serious offers to acquire the picture and loan it to a museum, or else had offered to make fractional gifts of it to a museum or even create a new private museum to house the work.
“Ultimately, the family sought to sell directly to a public museum,” Thomas says, “with a commitment for a permanent public display. Based on some of the offers and expressions of interest the family received, they may have been able to obtain more money for the painting if it had been sold to a private collector or at auction, but that was not their goal.”
About the remaining works—Beech Woods, 1903; Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912; Apple Tree I, circa 1911/12; and Houses in Unterach on Lake Atter, 1916—Thomas says, “no decisions have been made. They will likely be sold.” He adds that the heirs are exploring their various options regarding the works. Thomas did not comment on the estimated value of the paintings, but they are reportedly worth a total of $100/150 million.
Asked whether Neue Galerie intends to pursue any or all of the remaining four works it plans to exhibit, Gutterman declined to comment, as did Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
LACMA reportedly was involved in the bidding for Adele I. Said director Michael Govan in a statement to ARTnewsletter: “I’m sad the painting won’t be staying in Los Angeles, but I am pleased it will be on view in an American museum.” A LACMA spokeswoman said she had no other information about the museum’s bid. According to published reports, however, Govan had been making daily calls for months and was interested in acquiring all five of the Klimt works.
Asked how many potential buyers had competed for the gold portrait, attorney Thomas told ARTnewsletter that approximately seven-to-ten serious collectors and three-to-five museums (both U.S. and international) had shown interest, though he declined to identify any of them.
Asked whether the heirs initially intended to sell the works as a group, Thomas says they received some serious offers for all five paintings. These, he notes, were from private collectors or investor groups that did not intend to provide for permanent public display of the works.
“Museums were interested in acquiring all five together,” he affirms, “but none of them was able to offer anywhere near their value, as it would be one of the larger, if not the largest, single acquisitions by a museum. While the family was willing to make substantial financial concessions to place them together in a museum . . . the concessions required to complete such a museum purchase were far outside the means of the family.”
Thomas maintains that numerous factors figured in the family’s decision to sell the Adele I portrait separately. However, he points out, “it was not sold to the Neue [just] because they offered the highest price.”