Portrait of Fräulein Lieser is a 1917 painting by Gustav Klimt. Specialists have considered it lost for almost a hundred years. So it certainly came as a surprise when a Vienna auction house announced it would be crossing the block later this year.
The portrait’s subject is unknown, but due to the title, it is likely either Helene or Annie Lieser, the daughters of Justus and Henriette Lieser. One catalogue has also suggested the subject could be Margarethe Lieser, the daughter of Justus’s brother Adolf. The Lieser family was a wealthy Jewish family from Vienna. Klimt left the work unfinished when he passed away in 1918, yet it was still given to the Lieser family. The last known photograph of the painting before its disappearance, taken in 1925, indicates that the family still owned it. After that, the documentary evidence stops. Now that the current owners are selling, we know that their family purchased it in the 1960s. So, the term ‘rediscovered’ might be inappropriate in this case. It’s not like it was chilling out in a basement or laying undisturbed in an archive for a century. It’s been kept in a private collection for over fifty years. But there’s a significant, thirty-five-year gap in the provenance that has left some uneasy since that gap includes the entire Second World War and the Holocaust. Even though the Lieser family endured persecution at the hands of the Nazis, with some of the family members dying in concentration camps and ghettos, there is not much evidence to suggest that the painting was confiscated or sold under duress.
Despite the lack of evidence, however, the parties involved are handling everything with the utmost care and sensitivity. The current owners have consigned the painting jointly with the Lieser family’s descendants to im Kinsky, the second-largest auction house in Austria. In a press statement, the auction house stated that the owners and the Lieser family specifically chose im Kinsky for “their historical knowledge of art and legal expertise,” making it “well positioned to handle these sensitive projects and [take] into account all interests and claims.” Klimt’s portraits, particularly of prominent Viennese women, are rare at auction. Most are held by museum collections, including Portrait of Johanna Staude at Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I at New York’s Neue Galerie, and the Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The last major Klimt portrait to sell was the well-known Dame mit Fächer, which became the most valuable painting sold in Europe when it brought £85.3 million w/p at Sotheby’s London. Furthermore, many have noted how refreshing the Klimt’s sale will be for the art market in Austria. With so many great masterworks getting snatched up with consignments to Christie’s or Sotheby’s, occasionally Bonhams or Phillips, the art markets in London, New York, and, to an extent, Paris have become perhaps a little oversaturated. So having an Austrian painting by an Austrian artist being sold at an Austrian auction house might give a small jolt of revitalization to the Central European markets.
Portrait of Fräulein Lieser is estimated to sell for between €30 million and €50 million (or between $32.5 million and $54.2 million). Before its sale on April 24th, the painting will go on an exhibition tour, visiting Germany, Switzerland, Britain, and Hong Kong.