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Film Woman in Gold: The dramatic story of a family’s battle to win back five Klimt masterworks

The late Maria Altmann won the right to sue Austria for the return of the famed gold painting of her aunt, titled Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

ANNN JOHANSSON/NYT

Maria Altmann did not look like a woman who was about to come into possession of unspeakable wealth.

On the evening of Nov. 8, 2006, Altmann, a 90-year-old former Second World War refugee from Vienna, wore a kind of weary ambivalence as she faced the world's press at Christie's auction house in New York. Sixty-eight years earlier, the Nazis had seized her uncle's prized art collection, which included five Gustav Klimt paintings. She and her extended family had recently won back the paintings from the Austrian government; in a couple of hours, four canvases would together fetch more than $192-million (U.S.).

And yet it was a bittersweet moment. Earlier that year, I had spoken with Altmann while conducting research for Museum of the Missing, an illustrated book about art theft. She told me that the paintings, which had been claimed after the war by Austria and hung for more than six decades in Vienna's regal Belvedere Museum, should continue to be seen by the public – just not as the property of the Austrian government.

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But in the end, Altmann was only one vote in a large family, and a decision was taken to sell the four paintings. Sure enough, they ended up in private collections and disappeared from view.

Happily, one painting remains accessible, and it is easily the most famous of the collection: the trippy Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a resplendent gold portrait of Altmann's aunt that the family sold a few months before the Christie's auction to the billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for a then-record sum of $135-million.

If you would like to see Adele, you can visit the Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Lauder's shrine to the art and design of early-20th-century Austria and Germany. Or you could go to Woman in Gold, a new film from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) starring Helen Mirren as the feistily-true-to-life Altmann.

The story would seem ready-made for Hollywood. (In fact, it has already been the subject of numerous documentaries, including Adele's Wish by Vancouver filmmaker Terrence Turner, whose wife, Lisa, was Altmann's great-niece. It is also the subject of The Lady in Gold, an exhaustively researched 2012 book by Anne-Marie O'Connor.)

It opens in the heady days of fin-de-siècle Vienna, when Altmann's aunt Adele and uncle Ferdinand, a sugar magnate, hosted salons of avant-garde artists and thinkers in their grand apartment.

In 1907, Ferdinand commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of Adele; it is said that the artist and his muse, who was 20 years his junior, became lovers. Klimt painted her again five years later in a starkly different pastel style; both works remained in the Bloch-Bauer's collection. Altmann saw the paintings every couple of weeks, during family visits for Sunday lunch.

Some years later, Adele set down in writing that she wished her portraits to be hung in the Belvedere. But when she died of meningitis in 1923, Ferdinand instead created his own memorial to Adele, hanging all of the Klimts in her old bedroom; the room was always stocked with fresh flowers.

In 1938, the paintings – in fact, all of the family's possessions and business interests – were seized by the Nazis. A necklace of Adele's that Ferdinand had given Altmann for a wedding present ended up on the neck of Hermann Goering's wife. Still, Altmann told me, "that seemed totally unimportant, as long as you got away with your life." Many did not. Altmann and her husband escaped and found refuge in California; her siblings settled in Vancouver and Montreal. Ferdinand fled to Switzerland and died in November 1945.

The Nazis, meanwhile, proudly displayed their loot, albeit cannily Aryanized: Adele Bloch-Bauer I turned up during a wartime exhibition newly christened Lady in Gold, a title that eradicated the name of its Jewish model.

After the war, the Bloch-Bauer descendants made occasional attempts to reclaim their property, which Ferdinand had willed to them, but the efforts were largely fruitless: After all, Adele had willed the paintings to the Belvedere.

Or had she? In 1998, after Austria passed a law designed to ensure the provenance of the art in its possession was clean, an investigative journalist by the name of Hubertus Czernin turned up documentation that suggested Adele's so-called will was not legally binding. (Czernin's track record was impressive: He had helped expose the Nazi past of the Austrian president Kurt Waldheim.) Hearing the news, Altmann reached out to Randol Schoenberg, a young lawyer whose grandfather, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, had moved in some of the same circles as her aunt.

Altmann filed claim with an Austrian art-restitution panel, which turned her down. No surprise, really: The gold painting of her aunt was one of the Belvedere's most prized possessions, referred to as "Austria's Mona Lisa." But after Schoenberg took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court – facing off against the George W. Bush administration, which was concerned its relations with allies might be damaged – he and Altmann won the right to sue the Austrian government for the paintings' return.

In January, 2006, an Austrian arbitrator ruled for Altmann. And, although Austria scrambled to come up with the cash to buy back at least the two portraits of Adele – a leading politician declared it a national emergency, saying it was a matter of "Austria's identity" – the five paintings crossed the Atlantic a few months later.

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Altmann died in 2011.

So why are the Nazi lootings back in the spotlight now? Last year saw the release of The Monuments Men, the star-studded drama about the U.S. Army unit that rescued thousands of works taken by the Nazis.

"In the aftermath of World War II, the human costs had been so colossal, art wasn't really a priority," observed Woman in Gold director Simon Curtis, in a recent interview. "It's taken this time, now with various anniversaries – and the last survivors that are of prewar years are leaving us, aren't they?

"It's in the ether."

As many as 100,000 works taken by the Nazis are still unaccounted for; many taken from Germany by Russia are similarly lost. In fact, one other Klimt owned by the Bloch-Bauers remains in the Belvedere, after Austria refused the family's claim on it: Schoenberg continues to beat the drum for its release.

Curtis quotes Ron Lauder, who has helped lead the charge for their restitution. "These artworks are the last great prisoners of war, aren't they?"

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