Woman in Gold is a new film starring Helen Mirren based on the restitution of a masterpiece by Gustav Klimt. The American-British drama is directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and written by Alexi Kaye Campbell. The film also stars Tatiana Maslany, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Charles Dance and Max Irons. It is based on the true story of the late Maria Altmann, an octogenarian niece of the subject in the painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Altmann, a Holocaust survivor living in Los Angeles, together with her young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, fought the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim the iconic painting of her aunt. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was confiscated from her relatives by the Nazis in Vienna just prior to World War II.
The painting was hung in the Belvedere Gallery, Vienna’s national museum and only returned to the rightful heirs after years of litigation. It was later sold by the family at Christie’s for $135 million, double the previous world auction record for a work of art. It is now thought to be the fifth most expensive painting sold at auction. The Austrian government’s reluctance to allow restitution of the painting prompted court action to drag on for ten years. It was purchased by the Neue Galerie in New York with funds provided by its billionaire co-founder, Ronald S. Lauder.
The painting was commissioned by the leading Jewish, Viennese Bloch-Bauer family, prominent bankers and industrialists in the Austro-Hungarian empire, before World War II. Adele Bloch-Bauer was a key patron of Klimt and the Weiner Werkstatte. She was also an impassioned supporter of museums. In a will created in 1923, she bequeathed her collection of Klimts to the Belvedere Museum, however her husbands assets which included the paintings, were “Aryanized” by the Nazis in 1938, before he escaped to Czechoslovakia and then Switzerland. He died in 1945. The Belvedere Museum took title to the paintings, as was written in the will drawn up in 1923. However the legality of the will was questionable as the paintings were stolen from the rightful owner before they were donated to the museum. It is also doubtful that under the circumstances which arose from the annexation of Austria by Hitler that Adele Bloch-Bauer would have allowed the works to be donated to the museum.
In the later part of the 20th century, Austria was under attack by the international community for its handling of art looted by the Nazis. In 1998, the Bloch-Bauer descendants,mostly living in the US and Europe,decided to claim five Klimts in the Belvedere collection. Maria Altmann was key to the claim. She hired the American lawyer named Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. A legal battle ensued and in January 2006 the Austrian restitution panel ruled in favour of the descendants of the Bloch-Bauer family.