A Klimt masterpiece has gone on display again after spending nearly 60s years in obscurity. ‘Water Serpents II’ was painted by the revered Austrian painter Gustav Klimt in 1907 and had a troubled history before disappearing in 1964.
But the painting is now visible to the public at the Belvedere Museum, an Austrian gallery. ‘Water Serpents II’ depicts two water nymphs wrestling a red snake and comes from Klimt’s golden period where he produced other gold leaf works like ‘The Kiss’.
It’s a ravishing work but has remained an obscure work from the master due to spending years away from the public eye. Completed in 1907, the oil painting was traded among a number of Austrian private collectors at first.
A troubled history for the painting
Although Klimt wasn’t Jewish himself, many of his patrons in the beginning of the 21st century were from the Viennese Jewish community. During the Second World War, many works by Klimt were stolen by the Nazi regime from their Jewish owners.
After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, ‘Water Serpents II’ was confiscated by the regime from Austrian Jew Jenny Steiner, who fled to Portugal. The painting then passed into the hands of Nazi filmmaker Gustav Ucicky, rumoured to be one of Klimt’s illegitimate children.
Ucicky kept the painting until his death in 1961 where he bequeathed it to his wife Ursula. It was last publicly displayed in Austria in 1964 before the painting was assumed missing until it turned up again in 2012.
In fact, the entire time ‘Water Serpents II’ had been in the possession of Ursula Ucicky. In 2012, Ucicky worked with Sotheby’s and the descendants of Steiner, the rightful owner, to sell the painting for €103 million to art broker Yves Bouvier, splitting the profits 50/50.
Bouvier then sold it on to Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev in 2013, claiming it was still up for sale from the original owner and netting himself nearly €70 million in profit. Rybolovlev has been in litigation with Bouvier since then over his deceit.
Rybolovlev sold it again in 2015 to an undisclosed buyer.
Bringing it back to Vienna
The Belvedere Museum in Vienna and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam located the painting in preparation of a new exhibition on Klimt and those he was inspired by.
HomeArt, a collection founded in Hong Kong by Rosaline Wong has loaned the painting to the Belvedere Museum, forgoing the hefty six-figure insurance fee in exchange for museum expertise and restoration.