The Woman In Gold

The Woman In Gold is a movie about the real life story of Maria Altmann’s, who against all odds, fought her way to the U.S. Supreme Court in her quest to force the Austrian government to give back the painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Most of all, the movie well conveys the legacy of utter terror and brutality in the Nazi nightmare and the long trail of sorrow that followed.

In the movie,  an elderly Jewish woman, Maria Altmann (Mirren), starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt’s famous painting ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’. Together with her inexperienced young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), she embarks upon a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past along the way.


Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer assembled one of Vienna’s most renowned art collections, which included paintings by masters of Vienna’s Biedermeier period, modern sculpture, an impressive array of porcelain from the Royal Vienna Porcelain Factory, and a stellar group of works by Klimt, including the two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer and also landscapes. The Klimt paintings originally hung in Adele’s private apartment in the couple’s Vienna home.

The Woman in Gold is a Painting by Gustav Klimt made in 1907. It is an enormous shimmering gold and oil on canvas. It was one of six Klimt paintings confiscated by the Nazis from the Bloch-Bauer home. After the war, the works turned up in Austria’s federal art museum, the Galerie Belvedere. The Austrian government said the paintings had been willed to the museum, a claim that would later be found to be fraudulent. But even after the falsehood was finally exposed in 1998, it was a long road to getting the paintings back, especially the painting of Altmann’s aunt, the Woman in Gold. It was considered the Mona Lisa of Austria, so there was a strong resistance in Austria to give it back to its rightful owner.

In an interview in 2004 Maria Altman said, “I grew up with those paintings.” The golden portrait and five other Klimt paintings hung in her Aunt Adele and Uncle Ferdinand’s palatial home throughout her childhood. Her aunt, the subject of the portrait, was just 43 when she died in 1925. Thirteen years later, Ferdinand fled Austria just before the Anschluss, the union with Hitler’s Germany.

Everything was left behind and plundered by top Nazis such as Hermann Goering. Adele’s diamond necklace, passed on to Maria Altmann upon her marriage, reportedly ended up decorating the neck of Goering’s wife. The Klimt paintings were seized, too, only to reappear after the war in the Galerie Belvedere.

It took more than a half century and the opening of government cultural archives to expose the real story. In the end, Austria did want to avoid a trial and agreed to arbitration in Austria. The result was the return of all the Klimt paintings. Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder bought the Woman in Gold portrait for $135 million to display at his museum, the Neue Galerie in New York.

At the time (2006) of the acquisition, the museum’s President and co-founder, Ronald S. Lauder, stated: “With this dazzling painting, Klimt created one of his greatest works of art.” The other Klimt paintings sold for another $192 million.

Maria Altman sought to regain a world famous painting of her aunt plundered by the Nazis during World War II. She did so not just to regain what was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis. 


Adele Bauer was the daughter of a banker and the wife of Ferdinand Bloch. He was nearly twice her age — their marriage was arranged when she was just 18. Adele’s loving husband commissioned their illustrious friend Gustav Klimt to paint two portraits of her.  Gustav Klimt was a widely known and beloved early 20th century Austrian artist. Most of his clients were wealthy Jews. Owning a Klimt was a mark of prestige.

Adele Bloch-Bauer possesses the rare distinction as the only person Klimt ever painted twice. Following the outcry surrounding Klimt’s most controversial public commission-three faculty paintings that were to be installed in the Great Hall of Vienna University (Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, 1900-07)-Klimt withdrew from government projects and focused his energies on private portrait commissions of society women from Vienna’s cultural elite.

Klimt spent four years painting Adel. He painted her not only with oil, but also layered in gold and silver leaf. Adel was in poor health. She was frail, suffered bad migraines and was a chain smoker. She experienced great tragedies: two miscarriages and a son who died just a few days after he was born. She was 22 when Klimt began this portrait. Those losses show in her eyes. Adele died of meningitis in 1925 at age 43. Her portrait was shown in Germany, Vienna and Switzerland in her lifetime. It made her into a secular icon.


The movie received mixed reviews. However, I think that it is a great movie and highly recommend it.


Shortly after Maria married the opera singer Fritz Altmann, the Nazis took Austria over. The Nazis stole them from Maria the stunning necklace she wore on her wedding day. Her father Gustav was devastated when his prized Stradivarius cello was taken from him. Maria recalled: “My father died two weeks after that. He died of a broken heart.” The Nazis also seized Ferdinand’s entire art collection, his porcelain collection and his sugar refinery. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” became known as “Woman in Gold,” as well as a symbol of all that the family had lost.

The Nazis held her husband, Fredrick Altmann, at Dachau concentration camp to pressure his brother, Bernhard Altmann, to allow them to take over his booming textile factory. Having already fled to London, Bernhard signed over his factory to the Nazis and Fredrick was released. The couple then lived under house arrest until Maria managed to elude the guards by claiming that her husband needed a dentist. The two boarded a plane to Cologne and made their way to the Dutch border, where a peasant guided them across a brook, under barbed wire and into the Netherlands. Fredrick and Maria then fled to America and ultimately settled in California.

Frederick worked for the aerospace firm Lockheed Martin in California. Bernhard had started a new textile factory in Liverpool, England. He sent Maria a cashmere sweater, not yet available in the United States,  to see if Americans might like the fine, soft wool. Maria took the sweater to a department store in Beverly Hills, which agreed to sell them. Other stores across the country followed suit. Maria became the face of cashmere in California and eventually started her own clothing business with her own clients. Maria and Fritz had three sons and a daughter in America. Fritz died in 1994. Maria died in 2011 at the age of 94.


With Austria under pressure in the 1990s to re-examine its Nazi past, the Austrian Green Party helped pass a new law in 1998 introducing greater transparency into the hitherto murky process of dealing with the issue of restitution of artworks looted during the Nazi period. By opening the archives of the Ministry of Culture for the first time, the new law enabled Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin to discover that, contrary to what had been generally assumed, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had never donated the paintings to the state museum. 

Czernin was the first journalist to gain access to records at the Austrian Gallery in Vienna and, in 1998, published a series of articles about the ownership of five famous paintings from artist Gustav Klimt, proving that claims by Austria that they had been donated to the gallery by Ferdinand or Adele Bloch-Bauer were false. The articles led to the passage of Austria’s Art Restitution Law, which allowed Maria Altmann, the niece of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, along with Altmann’s lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, to pursue claims  to the Klimt paintings that had been looted from her uncle during World War II.

Maria Altmann at first sought to negotiate with the Austrian government about retrieving some of the paintings. At this stage she asked only for the Klimt landscapes belonging to her family, and was willing to allow Austria to keep the portraits. Her proposal was not, however, treated seriously by the Austrian authorities. In 1999, she sought to sue the government of Austria in an Austrian court. Under Austrian law, however, the filing fee for such a lawsuit is determined as a percentage of the recoverable amount. At the time, the five paintings were estimated to be worth approximately US$135 million, making the filing fee over $1.5 million. Although the Austrian courts later reduced this amount to $350,000, this was still too much for Altmann, and she dropped her case in the Austrian court system.

In 2000, Altmann filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The case, Republic of Austria v. Altmann, ended up in the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled in 2004 that Austria was not immune from such a lawsuit. After this decision, Altmann and Austria agreed to binding arbitration by a panel of three Austrian judges. On 16 January 2006, the arbitration panel ruled that Austria was legally required to return the art to Altmann and the other family heirs, and in March of the same year Austria returned the paintings.





Adele Block-Bauer, 1915


Klimt, in his signature artist smock, is pictured above in 1912

aria Altmann

Maria Altmann celebrates with family members in 2006 after an Austrian arbitration court determined the country is legally obligated to return the Gustav Klimt paintings to her.

The Woman In Gold movie

The movie

Click here for more Jewish books reviews