I first discovered Gustav Klimt’s lavish paintings, in my twenties, and knew then I would not easily forget the beauty and compelling surreal energy they evoked. In due course, I purchased and framed several prints first sold at the Vienna Art Nouveau Exhibition held at MOMA in the 1980s. You can imagine how delighted I was when The Woman In Gold movie (a true story about a Klimt portrait) came out last month. I was compelled to see it. While the movie focused on the ownership of the Adele Bloch-Bauer painting, there was a story to be told, of justice and hubris.
Several Klimt paintings, including the “Adela” portrait were stolen by the Nazis from a prominent Austrian family. In 1998, the last surviving family member, Maria Altmann, traveled to Vienna to reclaim the “Adela,” a portrait of her aunt, which was then on view in the Austrian National Gallery. What ensued was an exhaustive legal battle with the Austrian government lasting several years. At first, the negotiations were amicable but fruitless. Ms Altmann tried to compromise with the Austrians. She was willing to allow the portrait to remain in Vienna but wanted the government to admit the paintings were not theirs. Unfortunately, the officials involved were so entrenched they repeatedly ignored all her subsequent correspondence which made Maria mad.
Maria Altmann was a Jewish woman in her 80s living in Los Angeles; a Holocost survivor and now on a mission for justice. But officials would not relent on Austria’s continued complicity in Nazi-stolen art under the guise of “national treasure.” If that was the case, why not pay the owners of stolen art the market value outright? Eventually this ballet went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which allowed Ms. Altmann to sue the Austrian government in Vienna. Her lawyer understood that the Austrian people were a dichotomy of those who were ashamed of their history and those who denied it happened or felt justified to own stolen property. In court, her lawyer judiciously argued to the Austrian people’s better nature, which may have sounded naive and glib, yet convincing the judges to rule in Ms. Altmann’s favor.
After her win, Ms. Altmann was approached by one of the officials who had repeatedly denied herappeals and with nauseating hubris asked her to leave the Klimt portrait in Vienna, after all, it was a national Austrian Treasure, for which she would be compensated. She replied, “Before, I was willing to have it remain in Austria for an admission that it was stolen art… but now I will take it with me.”
She eventually sold the “Adela” to R. Lauder for $135,000,000 with the stipulation that it would remain in the Neue Gallery in New York, its permanent home.
Altmann with a reproduction of “Adela”
Hubris gets in the way of justice each and every time. There is merit in humility and persistence.
“Hubris calls for its own nemesis, and in one form or another it’s going to get it, not as a punishment from outside but as the completion of a pattern already started.” –Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By
“Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” –C.G. Jung
“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” –Sophocles, Antigone