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.
I went to see it immediately. It was hung in the main entrance hall at the time, and it was clear that the Met had itself a treasure.
Six years later, the Met bought Monet’s “Terrace at Sainte-Adresse” for $1.4 million. Again, the art world was convulsed. Intrigued and dubious, I went to see it the day it went on display. My instant reaction: this was the most beautiful and evocative painting I had ever seen.
In 2004—after many years of museum and gallery hopping in the U.S. and around the world—I was invited to a private viewing of “Manet and the Sea” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition was sponsored by one of the big banks in town and I found myself completely alone with that Monet masterpiece some 37 years after having first seen it.
I sat down on a bench across from it and spent a good half hour. I came away believing that it was even better than I remembered and is still the most beautiful and evocative painting I have ever seen.
The Great Art Conspiracy
One of the greatest heists of the 20th century was the Nazi theft of art from museums and private collections all over Europe—from France to Russia. For example, it is estimated that 21,903 objects were seized in France, with 9,000 of them looted from the Rothschild, David-Weill and Kann families alone.
“The Führer loves art because he himself is an artist,” crowed Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. “Under his blessed hand, a Renaissance has begun.”
Literally millions of objects were stolen, and many were recovered and returned to their rightful owners. But the conspiracy continues to this day. Many of these stolen works were acquired by private collectors and museums around the world—all of whom are loath to so much as look into the provenance, let alone return them to the heirs of the former owners. Rather they continue to display them—or, more likely, hide them in their vaults—hoping that the rightful owners will die off or lose interest. Such would have been the fate of the Klimt portrait had it not been for the persistence of Mme. Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, 90.
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.
P.S. Five months after Ronald Lauder’s purchase of the Klimt portrait, Hollywood mogul David Geffen sold “No. 5, 1948” by drip-’n’-splatter master Jackson Pollock to financier David Martinez for a reported $140 million. Martinez, who makes none of Forbes lists of the richest people, also holds the record for the highest price paid for a New York Condo—$42 million in 2003 for a penthouse in the Time Warner Center, which he is currently enlarging.