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 Toronto Star
Cornering the market on Klimt
N.Y. gallery exhibits treasured collection
Sep. 30, 2006. 01:00 AM
PETER GODDARD

NEW YORK—Several floors beneath Ronald S. Lauder's spare Vienna
Secessionist-style office looking over east Central Park is the painting
that puts the multi-billionaire collector back on the art map: Adele
Bloch-Bauer I (1907), Gustav Klimt's golden, sexy portrait of a wealthy
Jewish Viennese hostess, mostly likely the randy painter's lover, too.

Not that Lauder is ever really off the art map. As one of the heirs to the
$11-plus billion Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune — Lauder and older brother
Leonard have a joint worth of around $7.2 billion — he attracts close
scrutiny with any art decision he makes.

"Not to flatter you falsely," Lauder was forewarned recently in a talk we
had as he chewed on a croissant, his only breakfast, "but you may have
changed art history with this single purchase."

"Oh, go ahead," Lauder said with a thin smile. "I like being flattered
falsely."

This was a blockbuster buy, nevertheless. The $150 million paid — the most
for any painting — alone makes it the drama queen star of Neue Galerie,
Lauder's space for modern German and Austrian art co-founded five years ago
with the late dealer, Serge Sabarsky, a block south of the Guggenheim Museum
on Fifth Ave. The small gallery — only 350 people at a time — had to drop
its special $50 (U.S.) admission price due to a wave of angry phone calls
earlier this year. Regular admission is $15 (U.S.).

By next year, there may be a blockbuster movie for Montreal writer/director
Ilana Linden, whose documentary Portrait of Adele — still in its development
stages — delves into the family history before and after the painting.
Escaping Europe-wide anti-Semitism in the 1930s, several Bloch-Bauers landed
in British Columbia.

Adele's nephew Leopold — changing his name to Bentley — helped found Canfor,
the vast forest products conglomerate.

"There are in fact three stories that are all intertwined," says Linden, an
Israeli-born actor turned director. (Her previous documentary, Josef's
Daughter, aired last year on CBC-TV's Rough Cuts.)

"There's the one of Adele, Klimt and fin-de-siŹcle Vienna. There's the Nazi
Anschluss (the 1938 German annexation of Austria). There's the lawsuit — the
biggest art restitution case ever — which brought the painting back to its
rightful owner," 90-year-old Maria Altmann, now living in Los Angeles along
with the rest of the Bloch-Bauer estate.

As of now Adele is Lauder's story, though — and obsession. He remembers
staring at the painting in Vienna when he was only 14 and on his own. It was
his Mona Lisa. "My friends had pictures on the wall of rock singers and
football players," Lauder, now 62, told me. "I had reproductions of Matisse
and Picasso."

In 1986 his Austrian connection was further strengthened when President
Ronald Reagan named him the American ambassador to Austria. All this prompts
the question: Has Lauder's Klimt complex boosted the painter into the
Picasso-Matisse mega art-bucks stratosphere where many critics believe Klimt
doesn't belong?

Wasn't it just 20 years ago when the world went into collective shock at the
news that Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers had sold for $53.2 million?
Picasso's Boy with Pipe (1905) sold two years ago for $115.7 million.

"There is always the question: am I making the market?" Lauder went on.
"Whom am I competing against? When a great piece comes up, you may have two,
three or four dealers all competing to buy the piece to offer it to me."

The bottom line is that he may well be the market for Klimts these days. He
decides when the price is right, which explains why he over-paid so
spectacularly for Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, according to most experts.

Yet Lauder may have the last laugh.

The four other Klimts from the Bloch-Bauer collection being exhibited in the
Neue Galerie until Oct. 9 — Adele I stays in the Galerie — will go up for
auction Nov. 8 at Christie's, which estimates that the quartet of paintings
could go for around a total of $111 million.

Because of the high price paid by Lauder for the first portrait of Adele,
Klimt's second portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) — a far more sober
work, as if their painter-model fling was long over — could make anywhere
from $44.5 million to $66.8 million.

As a result, the rest of Lauder's Klimts — he's not saying how many he has —
have dramatically increased in value.

"In Klimt's case — and in the case of (painter Egon) Schiele — the Austrian
government decided they didn't want to let these paintings out (of the
country)," Lauder went on. "In American museums today there are very few
Klimts or Schieles. About 90 per cent of Klimt's work is still in Austria.
When I bought my first Klimt there was no one to talk to about it."

Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 would likely still be in the Austrian Gallery of the
Belvedere Palace in Vienna were it not for the suit brought against the
Austrian government several years back by the Bloch-Bauer estate. Adele
Bloch-Bauer — she died in 1925, age 43 — wanted her portrait to go to
Austria along with four of the other family-owned Klimts. But the Nazis
grabbed the works after her husband, Ferdinand, fled Austria to Switzerland
in 1938.

Once a rich sugar baron, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer made a new will before his
death in 1945 leaving his possessions, including the paintings, to his only
heirs, his brother Gustav's three children.

Altmann, the only surviving child, has lived in Los Angeles since 1942,
making ends meet as a dressmaker.

Lauder came into the picture when the estate heard about his passion for
Adele Bloch-Bauer I, his money and his willingness to keep it in a public
museum where it will be displayed for the discernible future.

But maybe along with Adele and Maria Altmann there's a third strong-headed
woman involved in this story, I suggested to Lauder — his mother, Estée, who
looks somewhat Adele-like in certain photos.

Lauder allowed his face to commit another wan smile. "We never will know
what exactly influenced my mother in her desires for beauty and things like
that," he said. "There's no question she was very much influenced by the
(19th-century) Vienna type of life and feeling."

pgoddard@thestar.ca