Ars longa, vita brevis
If you steal something, you can't keep it. You have to give it back.
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Monday 19 June 2006 19:38 US EDT
Lauder Guides Museum
to Buy Klimt Painting
by MICHAEL R. BLOOD
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ron Lauder first saw Gustav Klimt's "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" as a teenager in Vienna, and the gold-hued portrait of a dark-haired woman with bare shoulders left an impression that endured through time.
"It's a stunning picture. It overwhelms you with its beauty and its power," the cosmetics magnate told The Associated Press Monday during a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
It is a painting, he said, "we all wanted."
The 1907 masterpiece, whose extraordinary journey through the hands of the Nazis is part of its historical allure, was purchased for a record price of $135 million by a small New York City museum that specializes in German and Austrian art, Neue Galerie, which Lauder co-founded in 2001.
Lauder, a billionaire who serves as the museum's president, helped "put the museum in a position to acquire it" as part of a complex financial transaction, said Steven Thomas, an attorney who handled the sale for Maria Altmann, Bloch-Bauer's niece, and her family. "I don't think he loaned any money," Thomas added, but declined to release further details.
Citing confidentiality agreements, Lauder and Thomas did not confirm or deny the sale price, which was reported Monday by The New York Times. Thomas said it surpassed the prior record of $104.1 million paid at auction for Picasso's 1905 "Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice)."
"When I heard it was available after coming out of Austria, I did everything I could to buy it as quickly as possible," Lauder said.
Beyond its dazzling beauty, the painting is part of a historical and family saga that courses through turn-of-the-century Vienna, the Nazi occupation of Europe, the U.S. Supreme Court and, finally, Los Angeles.
"Think of the time, then what happened to this family ... having to flee the country. The expropriation first by the Nazis, then the state," Lauder said.
"This painting is very much part of this story -- part of the 20th century," Lauder added.
As part of the agreement, the golden painting, now displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will be moved to the New York museum with four other Klimts for an exhibition from July 13 through September 18.
When asked if he would seek to buy the other Klimts, also owned by Bloch-Bauer heirs, Lauder said, "Perhaps."
Altmann, 90, was a young newlywed when she watched the Nazis seize power in 1938 and loot the portrait and four other Klimt works from her aunt and uncle's home. Since then, the portrait has hung mostly in the Austrian Gallery Belvedere in Vienna, near Klimt's famous painting "The Kiss."
But in 1998 a law in Austria required museums to return art seized by the Nazis, and Altmann spent the next seven years fighting the Austrian government to recover the family collection. A lawsuit against the Austrian government eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2004 ruled in Altmann's favor.
Following arbitration, the Austrian government awarded all five paintings to Altmann and her family in January.
Lauder's ties to the New York museum and his relationship with Altmann -- he's known her for eight years -- apparently facilitated the purchase. Altmann's lawyer has said she wanted to ensure the art would remain somewhere in public view, where it would stand as a testament to the struggle of her family and other Jews in the Holocaust.
"The family always had in mind the Neue Galerie," Lauder said.
The painting will become the centerpiece of the little museum's collection in New York, where it should immediately increase the museum's popularity and reputation.
After so much, a happy ending?
"It's a happy ending for me," Lauder said.
As for Altmann, she was out of the country Monday but left a message on her home telephone answering machine: "We chose a museum that is a bridge between Europe and the United States." The museum will "be an excellent home for the gold portrait," she said.
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© 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.