Adele Bloch-Bauer, in her will, asked her husband to donate the Klimt paintings to the Austrian State Gallery upon his death. She died in 1925 from meningitis. When the Nazis took over Austria, her widowed husband had to flee to Switzerland. His property, including the Klimt paintings, was confiscated. In his 1945 testament, Bloch-Bauer designated his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altmann, as the inheritors of his estate.
As Bloch-Bauer's pictures had remained in Austria, the government took the position that the testament of Adele Bloch-Bauer had determined that these pictures were to stay there. After a protracted court battle in the United States and in Austria (see Republic of Austria v. Altmann), binding arbitration by a panel of Austrian judges established in 2006 that Maria Altmann was the rightful owner of this and four other paintings by Klimt.
Throughout the process, Stephen Lash, chairman of Christie's Americas, provided Altmann with artistic and legal information. After the pictures were sent to America, Christie's discussed with Ronald Lauder the possibility of a private treaty sale. In its business proposal Christie's put on the five Klimts a value of around $300 million, putting the value of Adele Bloch-Bauer I at $135 million. The amount of the guarantee offered by Christie's remains undisclosed. The paintings were then shortly on display in Los Angeles in 2006 before the Adele Bloch-Bauer I was eventually sold to Lauder in June 2006, who reportedly paid the agreed $135 million. Christie's offered to finance in large part the acquisition by accepting a consignment of works of art worth around $100 million.
The painting is the centerpiece of Lauder’s collection, Neue Galerie in New York. Lauder’s comment on the acquisition for his Neue Gallerie collection: “This is our Mona Lisa”. Originally, the four additional works by Klimt were included in the exhibition.
Soon after the first transaction, news of the forthcoming auction of the four other Klimts was announced, triggering speculation about the probable prices of the Klimts at auction. In November 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was sold at Christie's in New York, fetching almost $88m. In total the four remaining paintings sold for $192.7 million and the proceeds were divided up among several heirs. The buyers of those paintings remain anonymous. The wish of Maria Altmann that the paintings should be accessible to the general public in a museum has not been fulfilled.
Some in the art world criticized the heirs' decision to sell all of the restituted paintings: specifically, New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman described the heirs as "cashing in," and thus transforming a "story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust" into "yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market." Kimmelman wrote: "Wouldn’t it have been remarkable (I’m just dreaming here) if the heirs had decided instead to donate one or more of the paintings to a public institution?"