“The Lady in Gold” is a fascinating work, ambitious, exhaustively researched and profligately detailed. Anne-Marie O’Connor traces the convoluted history of Gustav Klimt’s dazzling gold-leaf portrait of the Jewish society beauty Adele Bloch-Bauer from its commissioning in 1903 to its sale to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder in 2006. But the book’s title does not do justice to O’Connor’s scope, which includes the Viennese Belle Epoque, the Anschluss, the diaspora of Viennese Jews, the looting of their artwork and legal battles over its restitution, and thorny questions facing the heirs of reclaimed art.

Roughly a third of the book deals with Klimt’s “Austrian Mona Lisa,” its Nazi-era theft and its eventual return to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. The rest provides context and a milieu dense with particulars. The work teems with historical personages who lived in, visited or plundered Vienna during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Mark Twain, Joseph Goebbels and scores of others, both integral and incidental to the story of Klimt’s golden portrait of Adele, appear in O’Connor’s populous and several-branched narrative.

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.

’The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer’ by Anne-Marie O'Connor (Knopf)

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.

O’Connor’s research turned up an enormous trove of information, much of it peripheral to her subject, such as the fact that Ferdinand Bloch’s limo was made by the same firm that built the convertible in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914; or that one Hedy Kiesler escaped her jealous husband, who had imprisoned her for swimming naked in a Czech movie, then made her way to Hollywood to become Hedy Lamarr. O’Connor can’t resist telling us that Maria used a corset to flatten her breasts for her first date with Fritz and that on their honeymoon, in the throes of passion, he cried out his former mistress’s name. She notes that on the evening Schoenberg got word of his big legal win, his son Joey had a fever.

Even though the fate of Adele’s iconic portrait is sometimes lost in a welter of tangential information, what reader won’t feel a frisson of horror on learning that Emmy Goering, Hermann’s wife, wore the diamond necklace that Ferdinand Bloch gave his bride as a wedding gift? O’Connor’s book is a mesmerizing tale of art and the Holocaust, encased in a profusion of beguiling detail, much as Adele herself is encrusted in Klimt’s resplendent portrait.


Kathryn Lang was senior editor of SMU Press in Dallas for 20 years.


The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait
of Adele Bloch-Bauer

By Anne-Marie O’Connor

Knopf. 349 pp. $30