Leading article: The face of wealth

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The Independent Online

All that glisters is not gold. Unless, that is, it is a painting. The £73m paid for a gold-flecked portrait by the Austrian Art Nouveau artist Gustav Klimt has put a whole new lustre on the art world, already reeling from a host of record-breaking sale prices for Picasso, Van Gogh and Cézanne. At this rate, a masterpiece of European art will soon be worth more than a score of British baronetcies or the total of Chelsea Football Club's losses last year.

And why not? We may like our artists poor and struggling, but once they're dead and the number of their works finite, they enter the world of the investor and the new rich, along with baseball teams, fine French wines and houses in London or Dublin. And if this particular work lacks, perhaps, the greatness that would justify it being worth a third more than the last record-breaking painting - Picasso's Boy with a Pipe, which fetched £56m at auction two years ago - at least it has an interesting history since its painting.

Looted by the Nazis, it was subject to a legal wrangle between the Austrian state and the sitter's descendants as to who should own it. The niece, now 90 and living in California, won, so the work moved from Vienna to LA, whence it has been plucked in a private deal by a businessman, Ronald S Lauder, who has started a small museum of Austrian art in New York.

The original sitter, Adele Bloch-Bauer, a famed beauty and salon hostess (as well as a reputed mistress of Klimt's), was the wife of a sugar industrialist in Austria. The US businessman is a cosmetics magnate. One feels the lady would have understood the connection, as her niece clearly has.

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