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L.A. Has Loved and Lost `Adele'

June 19, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

News of the sale of Gustav Klimt's 1907 masterpiece "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" to a New York collector is hugely disappointing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its audience. The celebrated golden portrait of the Viennese artist's great patron (and likely lover) has been attracting steady crowds since it went on view in early April.

LACMA's collection of early Modern art includes some landmarks -- Kurt Schwitters' greatest monumental collage, "Construction for Noble Ladies" (1919); Rene Magritte's Surrealist icon, "The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe)" (1928-29) -- but the Klimt is a work of a different magnitude. The Schwitters is a personal best by a major artist. The Magritte symbolizes an entire movement. The Klimt -- well, call it a founding document of 20th century art.

The portrait of Adele, showered in gold, derives from the ancient Greek myth of Zeus and the forbidden princess, Danae. Klimt transformed a classical tale about sexual congress between an Olympian god and an uncommon mortal into an ecstatic emblem of modern creative life.

In the end, though, when a painting is on the market, buyers do not decide where it will end up. Sellers do.

And the sellers of the Klimt -- Bloch-Bauer's niece, 90-year-old Cheviot Hills resident Maria Altmann, and several other family members -- chose to sell the painting to cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder rather than to LACMA. Reportedly, he bought the painting for the Neue Galerie, the small and elegant museum of German and Austrian painting, sculpture and graphic and decorative arts that he and the late art dealer and collector Serge Sabarsky opened on Manhattan's Upper East Side in 2001, just weeks after Sept. 11.

Fortunately, the painting will not be owned privately but by the museum. The Neue Galerie shows works from its own modest collection, from the Sabarsky collection and from the Lauder family. For example, Klimt's unfinished painting "The Dancer" (1916-18), a Matisse-like full-length portrait that is currently part of an exhibition titled "Selections from the Permanent Collection," is actually privately owned.

The price paid for "Adele I," said to be $135 million, exceeds what any other painting has ever brought at auction. (Christie's auction house helped to broker the private sale to Lauder.) But no one can say if that is the highest sum ever paid for a painting on the private market. It is certainly a lot of money -- nearly as much as LACMA is believed to have had on the table for all five Klimt paintings in its show.

The five are all from the Bloch-Bauer collection. They include a slightly later portrait of Adele, painted five years after the gold version when the affair had ended. (Like "The Dancer," it shows the profound impact of Matisse on the decorative patterning and palette favored by Klimt.) Finally, three canvases from 1903, 1911-12 and 1916 show the full range of his mature landscape work prior to his untimely death in 1918. The fate of these four, which together may be worth almost as much as "Adele I," remains undetermined; surely they will be dispersed, and one or more may be lost to public view.

More important, LACMA's monetary offer came with an intangible of enormous cultural value -- the possibility of keeping the paintings together, in public and with the story intact. The paintings, confiscated by the Nazis, were returned to the rightful heirs more than six decades later, after dramatic trials and arbitration in American and Austrian courts.

Together the five pictures told a remarkable 20th century tale -- of the profound relationship between a major Modern artist and his Jewish patron, the arc of Klimt's career, the collapse of European Modernism into fascist anarchy and the long process of redress.

The Neue Galerie will have a singular masterpiece. But the epic narrative is lost now because of the family's decision to break up the set, and it's a shame. The LACMA exhibition closes June 30, and with it the amazing story will come to an end.

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