By Joe Tash
Anne-Marie O’Connor’s immersion into the world of Viennese art and society at the turn of the 20th Century — followed later by the theft of countless art treasures from Viennese Jews by Nazis and their collaborators — began with a tiny item she read in a Los Angeles community newspaper in 2001.
O’Connor was then a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and her curiosity was piqued by the blurb about Maria Altmann, a local woman who claimed that a famous portrait by the artist Gustav Klimt had been stolen from her family by the Nazis. She called Altmann and was invited to her home.
“She sat me down and made me Viennese coffee and told me this very long, complicated story about her Aunt Adele… a woman of today living in the world of yesterday,” O’Connor said, imitating Altmann’s Austrian accent. “There was a Downton Abbey aspect to the whole thing that was very seductive to me.”
That initial meeting led O’Connor to research and write for more than a decade about Altmann, her family, and some of the world’s most valuable paintings, culminating in 2012 with the publication of her book, “The Lady in Gold — The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer.”
O’Connor was the featured speaker at the Jan. 27 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at The Grand Del Mar Resort (see event photos, page 8). Along with her talk, O’Connor presented a slide show of photos she had gathered during her research on the project.
“The Lady in Gold” comes during a resurgence of interest in the subject of Nazi-looted art, due to the recent revelation of a $1 billion cache of stolen art discovered by German authorities in Munich, as well as a soon-to-be-released film, “The Monuments Men,” directed by George Clooney, the story of a platoon of art experts charged with rescuing stolen masterpieces near the end of World War II.
Back in 2001, however, numerous Angelenos reported having lost art to the Nazis, and none ever got their paintings back, O’Connor said in an interview before her talk. Altmann’s case, according to legal experts, seemed likely to fall short.
But somehow, Altmann’s attorney, Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of a famous Viennese composer, kept winning legal skirmishes. Everything came to a head in 2006 when an Austrian commission determined that a number of Klimt paintings that were then hanging in Vienna museums had been stolen from Altmann’s family and must be returned.
“That was a real come-to-Jesus moment for Austria,” said O’Connor. It was disturbing to Austrians who had been able to look at these paintings all their lives, but suddenly found the artworks telling a different story.
“It was kind of an ugly, tragic story with a lot of culpability to go around,” O’Connor said. After that ground-breaking decision, O’Connor decided to write her book.
Ultimately, five Klimt paintings were returned to Altmann and the other living heirs, who sold them for more than $300 million. The most famous, the “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer,” was sold for $135 million to the Neue Galerie in New York City, where it is available to be viewed by the public. The other Klimts recovered by Altmann’s family are in private hands.
Altmann died in 2011, at age 94, shortly before O’Connor’s book came out.
The book is populated with prominent members of Vienna’s Jewish society, as well as celebrities including composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma; writer Mark Twain; psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud; and Hollywood notables such as director Billy Wilder and actress Hedy Lamarr.
The story follows family members from their well-appointed Vienna salons, to notorious concentration camps and prisons, to the United States and Canada, where those who managed to survive the war emigrated.
Along with the interviews O’Connor conducted in the U.S. and Europe, the author combed through thousands of documents, including memoirs provided by family members. Because she doesn’t speak German, O’Connor had to have many of the documents translated.
The book also details how as many as 14 Klimt paintings were destroyed when SS officers burned down an Austrian castle where the paintings had been stored, as a final act of defiance at the end of the war.
O’Connor now lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Washington Post reporter William Booth. She writes freelance articles for the Post, along with op-ed pieces about Nazi art theft for various publications, while considering her next book project.
Although Adele Bloch-Bauer had requested in her will that her gold portrait be donated to a Vienna museum after the death of herself and her husband, she died in 1925, before World War II and the Holocaust. Had she lived, said O’Connor, she probably would have changed her mind.
New York is a fitting place for the portrait to end up, she said, because many Viennese Jews run out of Europe by the Nazis immigrated to America.
“They loved Vienna and they thought Vienna loved them back,” she said. “They felt very betrayed after the war.”
For more information about O’Connor and her book, visit www.annemarieoconnor.com; “The Lady in Gold” is available at major book stores and web sites, including amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.