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Lost Klimt Sells In Vienna

April 25, 2024
Portrait of Fräulein Lieser by Gustav Klimt

Portrait of Fräulein Lieser by Gustav Klimt

On Wednesday, there was some auction news out of Austria. The country’s second-largest auction house, im Kinsky, had the art world’s eyes fixed upon it as it hosted a small sale that included several works by the Viennese fin de siècle painter Gustav Klimt. Of the nineteen works in the sale, everyone was mainly focused on the very last one: Portrait of Fräulein Lieser, one of the last great Klimt portraits left in private hands.

As I wrote back in JanuaryPortrait of Fräulein Lieser was considered lost for over a century before being consigned to im Kinsky. Klimt created it in 1917, only a year before his passing. The portrait’s subject is unknown, but it is likely either Helene or Annie Lieser, sisters and members of the same wealthy Jewish family in Vienna. The Klimt’s current owners have had the painting in their family since the 1960s. Since there’s a gap in the ownership between the 1920s and when the seller’s family bought the portrait, there was initially some concern as to whether or not the painting’s provenance was tainted during the Second World War. Even though the Lieser family endured persecution at the hands of the Nazis, there is not much evidence to suggest that the painting was confiscated or sold under duress. To assuage any outstanding apprehensions, the current owners consigned Portrait of Fräulein Lieser jointly with the Lieser family’s descendants.

The auction consisted of only nineteen lots, with additional works by Klimt and other Austrian artists. Overall, the sale did okay, with thirteen of the eighteen selling, eleven within their estimates. The stars were two works by Egon Schiele, one from 1910 and the other from 1914. The earlier one shows his sister Gertrude seated, while the other is a kneeling female nude. Both were done with watercolor and black chalk on paper, with the nude featuring some gouache. The works sold for €600K and €750K, respectively, against their pre-sale estimate ranges of €600K to €1 million and €500K to €1 million.

Portrait of Fräulein Lieser was the sale’s final lot. Normally, a work with a multimillion-dollar estimate would attract several interested parties, provoking a bidding war. This, however, was not the case with the Klimt. After only a few bids, the hammer price was up to its minimum estimate of €30 million. The auctioneer held there for just over a minute before triumphantly bringing down the hammer, followed by the rapturous applause of the audience assembled there. The buyer ended up being Hong Kong dealer Patti Wong. Given Klimt’s popularity at auction and the story behind the painting, it’s confusing why the portrait did not go for more. However, it may be because of the outstanding concerns about the painting’s provenance. Erika Jakubovits, director of the Jewish Community Organization of Vienna, commented that there were still “many unanswered questions” surrounding the Klimt, particularly who possessed the work during the Second World War and the Holocaust. Im Kinsky concluded that there is not much evidence to suggest that the painting had been confiscated or sold under duress due to anti-Semitic persecution. Yet, the lack of evidence may have been enough to drive some potential buyers away.

Portrait of Fräulein Lieser became the most valuable painting ever sold in Austria, reaching the top ten of the most valuable Klimt works sold at auction. It took a day for im Kinsky to publish final prices with added buyer’s premium, which for the portrait came to €38.5 million w/p (or $41.15 million), taking the artist’s #7 spot. It came in right behind Kirche in Cassone, which sold at Sotheby’s London in 2010 for £26.9 million w/p (or $43 million w/p).