Friday, June 10, 2016

THE STORY BEHIND MARIA ALTMANN'S QUEST TO REGAIN WOMAN IN GOLD

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

Yesterday I reviewed the movie Woman In Gold, which stars Helen Mirren. I promised more information about Maria Altmann's fight to have her Nazi-plundered artwork returned by the Austrian government, so here it is.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want to know the complete story, then stop reading NOW.

Let's begin with a photo of the late Mrs. Altmann with a prized possession, a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, by famous Austrian painter Gustav Klimt:


Now you know that the movie ends with Mrs. Altmann getting her family's paintings back from Austria, whose government argued that they should be allowed to keep the artwork stolen by the Nazis.

Maria Altmann grew up in Austria as Maria Bloch. Her aunt was Adele Bloch-Bauer, who modeled for some of Gustav Klimt's most famous paintings. Adele Bloch-Bauer died in 1925 when she was forty-four.

Maria married Fredrick "Fritz" Altmann in 1937. In 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria. They sent Fritz to the Dachau concentration camp as a means of extorting his brother, who had already left for England, to hand over his successful textile factory to the Nazis. He did so, and Fritz was released. The couple escaped from Austria and settled in Los Angeles.

Before Adele died, she asked her husband to leave their valuable paintings by Klimt to the Austrian National Gallery. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer died in 1945 and left his estate to his nephew and two nieces, one of whom was Maria Altmann.

Adele's request became an important point in the Austrian Government's argument that they should keep the five stolen Klimts in their possession. However, Adele made her request many years before the Nazi takeover of Austria, and in fact, the paintings belonged to Ferdinand.

During the 1990s, the Austrian Green Party helped pass a law that paved the way for greater transparency regarding the country's Nazi past. A crusading journalist named Hubertus Czernin learned that Ferdinand did not leave the paintings to the National Gallery.

Armed with this information, Maria Altmann tried to negotiate with Austria for the return of the Klimt landscapes owned by the family. She said they could keep the two portraits of Adele. The Austrian Government refused, and a large filing fee made it impossible for Maria to sue the government.

In 2000, Altmann filed suit in the U.S. Her lawyer, Randol "Randy" Schoenberg, argued the case before the United States Supreme Court. Their decision was that Altmann could sue Austria. However, because such a suit could take years,  Schoenberg suggested that they submit the case for binding arbitration.

In 2006, a panel of three Austrian judges decided that the paintings had to be returned to Ferdinand's heirs. It became the largest return of Nazi-stolen artwork, as the paintings were estimated to be worth $150 million.

First, the paintings were displayed in Los Angeles. Then they went on the auction block at Christie's. Ronald Lauder, son of the late cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder, purchased Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (known as Woman In Gold) for $135 million, at that time the largest amount ever paid for a painting.

Since then, it has been on display at Lauder's Neue Galerie in New York.

The other four Klimt paintings sold for a total of $192.7 million. The proceeds were divided between several heirs. Maria and Fritz Altmann had four children and a number of nieces and nephews.

Altmann told the New York Times: “You know, in Austria they asked, ‘Would you loan them to us again?’ And I said: ‘We loaned them for 68 years. Enough loans.’ ”

Maria Altmann died at age 94 in 2011. She could rest safely with the knowledge that her Aunt Adele was in the hands of an art lover in New York, for Lauder has pledged to keep the painting on display there.

An ABC News report on the recovery of the paintings:





And here is Adele Bloch-Bauer, as she looked in about 1910:


Does the movie Woman In Gold include every detail about the recovery of the paintings, and do so with complete accuracy? Of course not.

It does, however, capture Maria Altmann's tenacity in going after the paintings, which for years she believed belonged to the Austrian National Gallery. A plaque next to the painting said it had been donated by her aunt and uncle.

When she learned the truth, she went after what was rightfully hers and also drew attention to the way the Nazis stole art from the Jewish people. She told one newspaper that Austria prolonged the case as long as they could because they hoped she would die. She refused to do so, she said.

The movie is quite good at portraying the intricacies involved in the case against Austria and the inventiveness of her lawyer, who discovered the method for bringing suit in the U.S., although he had never before been involved in such a case.

In addition to Woman In Gold, you can find a number of documentaries about the case, and you can see Maria Altmann's interview with the Shoah Foundation here: https://goo.gl/2qzpfo

Happy learning!


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug


Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann--excellent performance

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Altmann
               http://www.biography.com/news/woman-in-gold-maria-altmann-biography

39 comments:

  1. Its a beautiful narration and indeed enlightening one...Keep us updated with the ideas and the cultures of your country...I am from Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country...

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    1. I have heard of Bhutan but know very little about it.

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  2. I have always loved Klimt's paintings. The landscapes are fabulous.
    Have not seen this movie but I really want to.

    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

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    1. I don't know where the three Altmann landscapes ended up after they were sold. I don't think I've ever seen a Klimt in person. Now I would love to see the "Woman In Gold" painting in Ronald Lauder's gallery in New York. Randy Schoenberg says the view of the painting is even better if you look from underneath it. He says it allows one to see the intricacy of the gold leaf.

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  3. Hi Janie - it certainly tells us about life back then in our rose-tinted glasses of the 21st century without remembering how difficult life was back then. I enjoyed the film .. cheers Hilary

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    1. The Altmanns' escape from Austria was quite frightening in the film. In fact, it was worse than the way it was portrayed. They did not succeed in escaping until their third attempt. I didn't realize that some people were held and then released in exchange for factories or artwork. I'm surprised the Nazis didn't overrun the brother's textile factory, but instead felt they had to make him sign it over to them. He started another successful textile factory in England.

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  4. I love real-life stories like this where justice prevails!

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  5. Fascinating! I've never heard of this one but now I want to see it. And I don't ever care if there are spoilers unless a major character dies as a plot twist and someone spills the beans about it.

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    1. I don't think I've spilled any beans that would ruin the movie for you.

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  6. The audio was too weak for me to watch the video link at the end of the interview but I plan to watch this movie, for sure. I watched the documentary you mentioned in your last post about all the stolen art and I had already seen the Monument Men a while back. I'm glad this has all been brought to light over the years.

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    1. So am I. I wish Maria had gotten back her aunt's diamond necklace. Maria wore it when she got married. It ended up around the neck of Hermann Goering's wife. I don't know what happened to it after the war, but the people who stole art and jewelry managed to keep a lot of it.

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    2. Spoils of war. Has always been. But they amassed art and treasures on such a grand scale! What a shame.

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    3. Hitler, who should have been accepted to art school instead of trying to take over the world, was obsessed with collecting art. All his yes men followed. So much has never been recovered. They amassed on such a grand scale because they killed/imprisoned the Jews and took all their valuable belongings. I would call them Nazi swine but that's an insult to a pig.

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  7. I'm glad the painting was recovered. Sounds like a fascinating movie.

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    1. I think it's something you might like to watch with your kids. They seem mature enough to understand it.

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  8. I watched this movie on the plane traveling to my honeymoon. I enjoyed it very much which surprised me because it is not something I would have picked voluntarily.

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    1. That's interesting. I never had a honeymoon. I hope yours was nice.

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  9. I do want to see this film and I am glad one can still see this portrait. I believe I did see this when it was in Vienna as well as The Kiss and it is amazing to see it in person because it actually glitters in gold-very amazing actually. I do feel a twinge of sadness that the landscapes are sold to private people where we can't see it...kind of a shame actually.

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    1. How wonderful that you saw it. I didn't know that the landscapes were in private hands. I wonder about the second portrait of Adele. At least some people loan their art to museums or other institutions. When my daughter went to Cambridge for her master's degree, she went to a special dinner one night in a private room that was for university luminaries. She said she couldn't stop staring at Marilyn Monroe all over the wall. When the dinner was over, she looked at it closely and sure enough, it was an original Warhol that was on loan to the university.

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  10. You better believe I'd fight tooth and nail to get those paintings back if Gustav Klimt had painted one of my relatives. Interesting story.

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    1. I love the work of so many artists. I don't think I've ever seen a Klimt in person. I would fight for the paintings, too! I'm pretty persistent.

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  11. I'm a rebel. I haven't seen the movie, but I read this entire post. :)

    Interesting story. So many other families never recovered the valuables stolen from them by the Nazis. It's always good to hear about people who are tenacious enough to succeed.

    Now, to PROVE what a rebel I am... NOW I'll read your review of the movie. :)

    Have a super weekend!

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    1. I always knew you were a rebel. Now I think you're a rabble rouser, too.

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  12. A wonderful movie. I'm glad she got her painting back.

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  13. We have a canvas wrapped print of Klimt in our bedroom. I always liked his work.

    Maria Altmann looked so pretty in the black and white photo.

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    1. The black and white photo is Maria's Aunt Adele, who was painted by Klimt.

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  14. What a tenacious, fascinating woman.

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  15. Such an amazing artist and painting. Thank you for sharing all that you have learned about the story!

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  16. This sounds like a fascinating movie, Janie! I'll have to watch for it! Thanks for sharing this real life story. Have a good one!

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    1. Thank you for sharing real life stories on your blog. I look forward to your dad's letters every week.

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  17. This sounds so interesting. You talk about knowledgeable and interesting things on your blog, I talk about pool algae.

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    1. I think I've told some poop stories. And I happen to love your pool algae.

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  18. This movie was one of the best we have seen. The entire journey that was taken to claim and obtain ownership was so well portrayed by Helen Mirren and ?Ryan Reynolds?

    Also "Monument Men" is another excellent movie that exposes the ruthlessness with which Nazis stole precious treasures.

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