A Washington Post special correspondent in Mexico City, O’Connor was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 2001 when she met Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece. Altmann had fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles, where she and her husband had lived quietly for 60 years. She and her lawyer avidly followed the news of the restitution of the Rothschilds’ looted art. Altmann decided to seek the return of her aunt’s gorgeous portrait, on display in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, and four other Bloch-Bauer Klimts, to all of which she was principal heir.
O’Connor begins with alternating biographies of Klimt and Adele. Married to Ferdinand Bloch, a Czech sugar baron, Adele established a glittering salon of Viennese intellectuals and artists. Klimt, co-founder of the Viennese Secessionist group of painters, frequented her salon. Having risen from obscurity to become the most prominent painter in Vienna, he was notorious for seducing his sitters. As Klimt was finishing both the refulgent portrait of Adele and his most popular work, “The Kiss,” an aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler was rejected by the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts.
Part Two picks up in 1937, long after the deaths of Klimt in 1918 and Adele in 1925. Goebbels has ordered Germany cleansed of “degenerate” Jewish art, and Adele’s husband has fled Vienna, leaving everything behind. Now O’Connor shifts her focus to Maria, née Bloch-Bauer. Shortly after her wedding in 1937 to Fritz Altmann, a handsome Polish opera singer, Maria’s glamorous life in Vienna is shattered by the Nazi takeover. Fritz is imprisoned in Dachau, her sister is raped, and her brother-in-law is executed.
Part Three features Randol Schoenberg’s eight years of legal maneuverings with the Austrian government on behalf of Maria and the Bloch-Bauer heirs over jurisdiction and ownership of Adele’s mosaic-like portrait and her four other Klimt paintings. A grandson of the exiled Viennese modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, Randol was passionate about restitution law long before he met Maria. They made a good team with her charm and his persistence and were finally awarded the looted Bloch-Bauer Klimts in January 2006.
Despite the misgivings of some family members, Maria sold Adele’s gleaming portrait five months later for $135 million to Lauder for his Neue Galerie in New York City. (At the time it was the world’s most expensive painting, a distinction now belonging to Cezanne’s “The Card Players,” which sold last year for more than $250 million.) Instead of donating one of the remaining Klimts to Lauder’s gallery, as one relative suggested, or limiting potential buyers to representatives of museums so that the paintings would stay on public display, the new owners put them up for auction. In November 2006, it took Christie’s all of six minutes to sell the Bloch-Bauer Klimts to anonymous buyers for a combined total of $192.7 million. Now in private hands, unfortunately these paintings will seldom, if ever, be seen by the public.