Four of five paintings by Gustav Klimt that were at the center of a much-publicized restitution battle will be heading to Christie's for sale this fall, Marc Porter, president of Christie's, confirmed this week. Whether the works will be auctioned or sold privately has yet to be determined, he said.
Experts say the four paintings — three landscapes and a portrait executed between 1903 and 1916 — are worth about US$100 million.
The five Klimts were handed over by Austria in January to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, the niece of the original owners in Vienna, and other family members. The paintings came from the collection of the Jewish sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and his wife, Adele. An arbitration court had ruled that they were improperly seized when the Nazis took over the country.
In June the cosmetics executive Ronald Lauder purchased the most renowned of the five, a gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer from 1907, for the Neue Galerie in Manhattan for US$135 million. It is the highest price known to have been paid for a painting, eclipsing the US$104.1 million paid for Picasso's 1905 Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice) in an auction at Sotheby's in 2004.
All five Klimts are currently on view at the Neue and have been attracting large crowds. “None of us is in a position to keep them,” Altmann said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles.
For months now, said Steven Thomas, the lawyer representing the Bloch-Bauer heirs, both Christie's and its archrival Sotheby's have been making overtures to Altmann and her relatives about selling the paintings. But it was only in the last few weeks that the negotiations really heated up.
“It was actually competitive to the end,” Thomas said. The final decision was based primarily on relationships, he added: Stephen Lash, chairman of Christie's in America, grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, where Altmann and husband lived in the early 1940s. Lash has been in constant touch with Altmann since she initiated the efforts to recover the paintings. And Christie's had been enlisted by Lauder to help him negotiate the purchase of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
For most of the last 60 years the paintings had hung in the Austrian Gallery of the Belvedere Palace in Vienna near The Kiss, another lustrous gold-flecked Klimt masterpiece of the Art Nouveau era.
The Nazis seized them from one of the Bloch-Bauers' palaces in Vienna. They had been hanging in a bedroom that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had turned into a kind of shrine to his wife after she died of meningitis in 1925. “He took the bed out, and there were always fresh flowers,” Altmann recalled.
She said she traveled to Vienna this summer to see the house, where she had spent much time in her youth. “It was not recognizable,” she said. “It no longer had the look of a palace, now it's just a house of business. I went in and tried to find the bedroom, but I couldn't find anything that reminded me of a bedroom.”
Since Lauder announced he had bought Adele Bloch-Bauer I for the Neue Galerie, which he helped to found five years ago, there has been speculation that he might buy the other paintings. On Friday he said in a telephone interview that he would consider purchasing one or more “if the price is right.”
“They're all great pictures,” Lauder added. “Each one would have something to add to the Neue Galerie's collection. But if the buyer is not the Neue Galerie, I hope they will end up in other museums.”