Klimt sells for record sum

June 20, 2006|By CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS AND ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS AND ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- A 1907 Gustav Klimt portrait of Vienna, Austria, 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.

Cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder bought the painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, on behalf of the museum he founded, the Neue Galerie in New York.

While the exact sale 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.

In January, an Austrian court decision gave the painting and four other Klimts back to five heirs of Bloch-Bauer, who include 90-year-old Maria Altmann of Los Angeles.

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

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 does plan to sell its four other Klimt canvases but hasn't finalized any deals. Thomas declined to confirm or deny the $135 million sale figure, but did confirm that the figure is the highest-known price for a painting.

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 and 1987.

Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles attorney and Bloch-Bauer family friend who fought Austrian officials in U.S. 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 German and Austrian art of the turn of the century, sits in a former private residence on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It gets about 200,000 visitors yearly.

The painting's history resonates especially 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 the University of Southern California to Austria.

Thomas said the heirs had from early on envisioned temporary exhibitions of the works in Los Angeles and New York. In its sale negotiations, Thomas said, the family wanted "permanent public display in a museum" but also "wanted to recognize the value of the paintings" -- that is, to get a good price. Thomas said five to 10 private collectors were seriously "in the hunt" for the work, along with three to five museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has been displaying the five Klimts since April 4.

Klimt, who lived from 1862 to 1918, is a key figure in European painting because his works were among the first heralds of modernism in art. His subject in the portraits, Bloch-Bauer, was married to sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

Adele Bloch-Bauer, a rumored lover of the artist, owned the works until her death in 1925. She had asked her husband to donate the works to Austria's national museum, but in their successful campaign to win the canvases back, the heirs argued that he was never bound to do so.

Christopher Reynolds and Anne-Marie O'Connor write for the Los Angles Times.

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