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Klimt Painting Sells for Record Amount

Portrait seized by Nazis was returned by Austria to L.A. woman and other heirs after lawsuit.

June 19, 2006|Christopher Reynolds and Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writers

A 1907 Gustav Klimt portrait of Vienna aristocrat Adele Bloch-Bauer looted by the Nazis and recently returned to a Los Angeles woman and her relatives has been sold to a small New York museum for the highest known price ever paid for a painting.

The sale of "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" dashes hopes that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- which has been displaying the work and four other Klimts since April 4 -- might acquire the picture itself. Cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder bought the painting on behalf of the museum he founded, the Neue Galerie.

While the exact sales price remains unclear, the Los Angeles attorney representing Maria Altmann and four other heirs said Sunday that Lauder paid the highest known price for a painting. Until now, the high-water mark was $104.1 million, paid in 2004 by an unnamed auction bidder at Sotheby's for Picasso's "Boy With a Pipe." The New York Times, which first reported the sale of the Klimt, said the work sold for $135 million.

It was only in January, after the paintings spent decades on display at Austria's national museum, that an Austrian court decision gave the five Klimts back to the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer, including Altmann, 90, of Cheviot Hills.

"It was important to the heirs and to my Aunt Adele that her painting be displayed in a museum," Altmann said. "We chose a museum that is a bridge between Europe and the United States."

The five paintings' collective worth had been estimated at as much as $300 million, which made guessing their destination a popular parlor game from Brentwood to Vienna. Even with the favorite painting sold, experts said the four other works -- a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three landscapes -- could together fetch $100 million to $150 million.

The heirs' representative, Los Angeles attorney Steve Thomas, said Sunday that the family plans to sell their four other Klimt canvases but hasn't finalized any deals. He declined to confirm or deny the reported $135-million sale figure.

To close this complex deal, said Thomas, he ultimately needed a contract of more than 15 pages. He said he, Lauder and Lauder's representatives negotiated for many weeks before a deal was struck several weeks ago. Along with the purchase of the "gold portrait," the Bloch-Bauer heirs and the Neue Galerie agreed to an exhibition of all five of the Klimts from July 13 through Sept. 18.

Lauder, whose wealth was estimated at $2.7 billion by Forbes magazine in March, served as U.S. ambassador to Austria in 1986-87. He made at least one trip to Los Angeles to see the pictures, LACMA officials said. Lauder could not be reached for comment Sunday.

"I'm sad it's not going to Los Angeles," said Michael Govan, director of LACMA. "But the fact that it's going to a museum in America is great. Ronald Lauder is to be congratulated.... The art has been a passion of his since he was a teenager. He's spent huge amounts of his life and his resources celebrating this art."

Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles attorney and Bloch-Bauer family friend who fought Austrian officials in American and Austrian courts for more than seven years over the paintings, said, "It's terrific. They sold it for a fair price, and it's going to be on public display. It's going to be in a real art capital. For Maria and me it would have been nice to have it in Los Angeles. But New York is a nice place to display it."

The Neue Galerie, which Lauder opened in 2001 to focus on turn-of-the-century German and Austrian art, sits in a six-story former private residence on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Though the young museum has thousands of items on long-term loan, including several Klimt paintings, the Bloch-Bauer portrait joins just 166 works owned outright by the museum. The institution gets about 200,000 visitors yearly.

Lauder serves as president of the Neue Galerie's six-member board.

The painting's history resonates deeply in Los Angeles, which from the 1920s to the 1950s became a haven for Jewish Austrian intellectuals including architects Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra and composer Arnold Schoenberg. In fact, Schoenberg the attorney is the grandson of Schoenberg the composer. And only a decade ago, Los Angeles and Vienna were in another cultural tug of war, when the Schoenberg family decided to move the composer's archive from USC to Austria.

The Klimt question was daunting from the start for leaders at LACMA, whose entire endowment amounts to about $125 million and who typically spend less than $5 million yearly on acquisitions.

Govan said that for months he'd been making daily calls and was most interested in getting all five paintings, not just one. Though Govan declined to discuss details, two sources inside LACMA said the museum's leaders believed that by tapping all sources, they might have been able to pull together $150 million. However, Govan noted that in LACMA's history, the most money the museum has ever spent on a single artwork was in "the single-digit millions."

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