Maria Altmann, 82, was just 8 years old, youngest in a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, when her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer died. Her childhood recollections are of "a very intellectual, rather cold person," embittered because her sister, Altmann's mother, had five healthy children. Adele had suffered three stillbirths and had no children who lived. The frail aunt also died young, at age 43.
"She wasn't very warm with children, and I cannot blame her, after what happened," said Altmann, who now lives in Cheviot Hills, having fled first for London, then for the United States, with her husband Fritz on Oct. 12, 1938, after the Nazis invaded Vienna. They escaped less than a month before Kristallnacht, when the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, stores and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria.
"We were five healthy children, so there was friction between the sisters," said Altmann, a tall and still strikingly beautiful woman with a surprising sense of humor. "She was a very thin lady who smoked constantly; she died at a time when they had no cure--they still don't, really--for meningitis."
While the child Maria was never close to her aunt, the family bond between them is nevertheless very much on Altmann's mind these days.
Austria's parliament recently enacted a law providing for the return of Jewish-owned artworks plundered by the Nazis, or donated to the country under coercion from the postwar government. And Altmann may receive restitution for the art collection of sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Adele's husband, with an estimated value of more than $100 million. The artworks, which were seized by the Nazis, may be returned to Ferdinand's heirs, including Altmann.
The artworks, now housed in various Austrian museums, include 1907's "The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" by Gustav Klimt, one of the artist's celebrated "gold" paintings, adorned with metallic paint. Adele Bloch-Bauer served as Klimt's patron--and, more than likely, his lover.
"You know, I asked my mother, 'Did they have an affair?' and she said: 'How dare you? It was an intellectual friendship!' " said Altmann, with a sly laugh. "People did the same things they do now, but they didn't talk about them. I had a pretty good feeling that it was more than an intellectual friendship.
"I saw a movie about Klimt when I was in Vienna--it was more than 25 years ago--that said he used to paint portraits of the ladies of society, and they became his mistresses. By then, my mother was gone--so I could not tell her that the first thing on the screen was the painting of Adele."
A reproduction of the portrait, featuring Bloch-Bauer in a golden gown, hangs in Altmann's living room. The family collection also includes the 1912 "white portrait" of Adele, some Klimt landscapes, several Biedermeier paintings, and possibly a painting from the school of Holbein.
Altmann calls Bloch-Bauer her "double aunt," because Adele was not only the sister of Altmann's mother--she married the brother of Altmann's father. The two Bauer women asked the two Bloch men to create a blended name because their own brothers died young--one from a bullet lodged in his brain during a duel. There would be no one to carry on the Bauer name. The brothers agreed.
Family artworks still in Austrian hands also include 34 pieces of Viennese classical porcelain, all that can be located of a collection of 400 pieces. But the Klimts hold the most value. The "gold" portrait of Adele is thought to be second only to Klimt's ubiquitous painting "The Kiss" (scholars continue to cite evidence that the woman in "The Kiss" is also Bloch-Bauer, but that has not been proven).
"This has to be one of the preeminent Klimt collections in the world; I can't think of anything to rival it," said Jane Kallir, co-director of Manhattan's Galerie St. Etienne, which deals in Austrian and German Expressionist paintings and drawings, as well as American folk art.
"Klimt is known for his gold paintings, and yet the fact is that he did very few of them," Kallir said. "The second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is also a significant and major work, and would be considered a blockbuster in its own right if it weren't outdistanced by the gold version."
Whether Altmann and her children will ever get the artworks back remains an open question. Complicating the matter of ownership is Adele's will, which expressed the wish that, after Ferdinand's death, the Klimt paintings be donated to Vienna's Austrian National Gallery, where they hang today.
Adele Bloch-Bauer could not have known the Nazis would eventually seize the family homes, property, artworks and jewelry, including a diamond necklace she gave to Altmann as a wedding gift. Altmann believes her aunt would never have wanted Austria to have the paintings had she lived to see the end of a glorious era, during which artists and intelligentsia filled the family home every night.