Author tells tale of famed Bloch-Bauer portrait

JONATHAN LOPEZ For The Associated Press Published:

"The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer'" (Knopf), by Anne-Marie O'Connor: In 1907, when Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted his famed portrait of the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, he could not have known that the sophisticated world inhabited by the sitter's wealthy Jewish family would be destroyed by the Nazi takeover of the country in 1938. Adele's heirs fled to Switzerland -- their business interests in tatters and their art collection, including the portrait, confiscated by Hitler's minions.

As Washington Post journalist Anne-Marie O'Connor relates in her painstakingly researched history of the case, it would take 68 years and a massive legal fight before descendants succeeded in reclaiming the art from the Austrian government. The bureaucratic stonewalling and politically motivated bad faith they encountered added insult to the tragedy of the Holocaust. But through the tireless efforts of figures including American attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, who spearheaded the recovery effort, justice was eventually done. O'Connor's narrative is enriched by extensive interviews and a remarkable trove of family correspondence.

"The Lady in Gold" paints a vivid picture of Vienna's prewar Jewish intelligentsia, the artistic career of Klimt, the horrifying rise of Nazism and the complexities of international law and art restitution.

Visitors to New York's Neue Galerie, where the Bloch-Bauer portrait has been on display since its purchase by billionaire Ronald Lauder for a record $135 million in 2006, will be familiar with the sparkling, seductive image. But O'Connor's fascinating tale of beauty, terror, loss and remembrance reveals a deeper truth beneath the golden surface.

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Jonathan Lopez is editor-at-large of Art & Antiques.