The $135 Million Question

Photo: Chris Pizzello/Reuters/Newscom

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) cost Ronald S. Lauder $135 million, making it the world’s priciest painting. Many people, dumbfounded by that figure, will now visit the Neue Galerie to see what this much cash looks like. And moralists will rant and rave about the money-mad art world. About the vulgarity of the art world there can, of course, be no question. But think: A new Boeing 787 Dreamliner costs about the same. Isn’t Klimt’s dream worth as much, in the end, as a Dreamliner?

1. The painting gives the Neue Galerie—founded by Lauder and Serge Sabarsky to exhibit modern German and Austrian art—undeniable star power. It now becomes one of New York’s great house museums, and a great place to take a date. Adolescents and twentysomethings have always revered Klimt. After a heated viewing, couples can stop at the café to share what’s probably the best Viennese pastry in New York.

2. Decadent? The Nazis found enough value in Adele Bloch-Bauer I to steal it and four other Klimts from the Bloch-Bauer family. Early attempts to recover them failed; the works ended up at Vienna’s Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. Lauder called them the “last prisoners of World War II.” The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and, eventually, the Austrians freed the prisoners. The restitution of the paintings, which are now being displayed together at the Neue Galerie, will serve justice while enriching the heirs. A rare trick.

3. Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Viennese, may or may not have been Klimt’s lover, which is part of the picture’s beguiling mystery. She was certainly his muse. The painting is an altarpiece for the romantic imagination. Klimt worked on it for three years, embedding Adele in a softly undulating and hypnotic cloud—a melting halo of gold. Her expression is languid, her dress full of fluttering eyes. She kept the painting in her private sitting room.

4. Klimt was inspired by the glorious Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, where the gold and jewels flicker in an otherworldly light. At the Neue Galerie, Adele Bloch-Bauer I is well placed in an imposing and handsome room. But the flat and even light, while ideal for many other paintings, deadens the imaginative shimmer of Klimt’s gold. It may take some time before the museum’s curators get just the right sort of glimmer.

The $135 Million Question