Gawking at $135 Million in Nazi Loot
Klimt’s $135 million portrait of Mme. Bloch-Bauer not only dominates the main room at the top of the grand marble staircase, but overpowers everything else in the museum, and very possibly everything on the east side of Fifth Avenue until you get to the Frick Collection 16 blocks south.
The picture is four-and-a-half feet square. At the very top is Mme. Bloch-Bauer’s angular face with enormous dark doe eyes, full red lips and black tresses piled high in a towering Edwardian hairdo. She wears a silver bejeweled choker and a silver-and-gold gown with myriad gold and sliver patterns that suggest the Art Deco era that follows. But what is extraordinary is the gold and silver everywhere—in the background, layered in the dress, surrounding her in a halo-like design filled with gold and silver coins and symbols from ancient Egypt and Greece. I think I even spotted a couple of little sperm swimming around the midsection of her dress.
Yet, in spite of the blazing array of precious metals, my eye kept returning to her face with an expression as mysterious as that of Mona Lisa.
Someone once said that paintings take a long time to create and that viewers should spend time looking at those that they feel have meaning.
I kept returning to the Klimt portrait after visiting other galleries in the museum. It pulled me like a magnet as I studied anew the dazzling gold and sliver designs. All the while I kept trying to get my head around $135 million.
Did Ronald Lauder Overpay?
Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, doesn’t think so. On June 20, 2006, he wrote in Slate.com:
As for the $135 million, the price seems low to me. Most art prices seem low to me. What’s a reasonable price for a one-of-a-kind masterpiece? If the Texas Rangers once paid Alex Rodriguez twice that amount to play shortstop for 10 years, hasn’t Lauder gotten his Klimt, which he owns in perpetuity, for a steal? (I’d rather have Adele on my wall than A-Rod on my team.) Fortunately for the rest of us, Lauder’s luxury object will be available to all of us, radiating luxe, calme, et volupté forever.