Klimts Go to Market; Museums Hold Their Breath

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How sad — if unsurprising — to hear that the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer are indeed cashing in, as planned, and selling four Klimts at Christie’s in November. A story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust has devolved into yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.

Wouldn’t it have been remarkable (I’m just dreaming here) if the heirs had decided instead to donate one or more of the paintings to a public institution? Or, failing that, to negotiate a private sale to a museum at a price below the auction house estimates of $15 million to $60 million?

To back up: Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish industrialist in Vienna, commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint his wife, Adele, in 1907, and again in 1913. The family also acquired three Klimt landscapes. Adele died at 43, in 1925, of meningitis. Public-spirited, she wanted her art to go to Austria.

But then the Nazis came to power. They seized the Bloch-Bauer collection along with everything else the family owned. Ferdinand fled Vienna. He died in Zurich in 1946. For decades the Austrian government insisted that it had acquired the Klimts legally. The case went to court. In January the heirs won. They were led by Maria Altmann, Ferdinand’s niece, now 90 and living in Los Angeles. Her lawyer was Randall Schoenberg, the grandson of another Hollywood exile, Arnold Schoenberg.

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