A Viennese beauty gets her portrait painted by Klimt and sets the wheels in motion for a 100-year saga involving sex, genocide, betrayal, a landmark legal battle and millions of dollars. The Lady in Gold is the harrowing account of that painting’s fate. O’Connor takes readers from the belle époque salons of old Vienna, where Adele Bloch-Bauer reigned as an assimilated Jewish matron (and probable mistress of Klimt), to the art museums of Vienna in 2006. Along the way, the painting was stolen, hidden, renamed and consigned to a shadowy bunker by art administrators first acting on behalf of the Nazis, then the postwar regime.
Klimt’s work had fallen out of favour with Hitler, yet his paintings were still among the thousands of confiscated pieces of artwork the government considered state patrimony. In its day, the 1903 portrait of Adele was worthless, but it became something very different after the war: a symbol of Austria’s refusal to make amends for its large role in the Holocaust. If there are any Holocaust deniers left, they will be hard pressed to explain away this scathing indictment of Austria’s eager Nazi collaboration. Most shocking are the author’s interviews with unreconstructed bigots. Restitution claims, they say, have gone too far. One blames the Jews for not getting out of Austria before the Anschluss. Maria Altmann, Adele’s 80-year-old niece, thought otherwise and started a six-year legal battle to get the portrait back.
Cataloguing the Bloch-Bauer family tragedies, O’Connor gives each of her subjects a dignified historical airing. She is merciless when exposing the postwar bureaucrats who blocked art restitution claims. Adele’s relatives got their painting back, then sold it at auction for $135 million. The family was criticized in some circles for not donating it to a museum. To those critics, this reader holds out her copy of The Lady in Gold, saying, “Read this and reconsider.”