Gawking at $135 Million in Nazi Loot
Ronald Lauder’s passion is art. The younger son of cosmetics mogul Estée Lauder and worth $3.3 billion, Ronald Lauder bought an elegant Fifth Avenue mansion across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and turned it into the Neue Gallery dedicated to German and Austrian art.
In June 2006 he privately acquired one of the most extraordinary pictures in the world—a 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of a wealthy Viennese industrialist, painted by Austrian master Gustav Klimt.
It had been looted by the Nazis during World War II and, when repatriated, wound up in a museum in Vienna. The Austrian government fought hard to keep it, but after decades of litigation—including an intervention by the United States Supreme Court—the portrait was ordered returned to the Bloch-Bauer heirs by an Austrian court.
The price Lauder paid was $135 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a picture in America.
Last week I went on a bus tour to New York to see this painting. I spent 45 minutes with Mme. Bloch-Bauer. I am still reeling.
Art and Money
Ronald Lauder’s Neue Gallery was humming last Thursday—swarms of people and an hour wait in its Viennese café.
Klimt was a great draftsman and his drawings—although faint and made more so by dim lighting—were spectacular. But it was the centerpiece—the $135 million Bloch-Bauer portrait—that brought us all in the door. Lots of people mean entrance fees, audio guide rentals and cash registers humming in the gift shop and the restaurant. Crowds also generate the interest of prospective donors who want to see their names carved in marble in a hugely popular venue rather than a seldom-visited gallery in the boonies.
Backgrounder on High-Priced Art
At the Parke-Bernet Auction Galleries in Manhattan on the evening of November 15, 1961, it took just four minutes for James J. Rorimer, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to buy Rembrandt’s 1653 painting “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.” The price paid: an unheard of $2.3 million—the record at the time for any painting sold at a public or private sale. The art world was agog.