Klimt portrait missing for nearly a century could sell for $54 million

A portrait by Gustav Klimt that was unseen for almost a century is expected to fetch millions when it goes up for auction this spring.

The “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser,” thought to be one of the Austrian painter’s final works, is expected to fetch up to $54 million at a sale that has created huge excitement in the art world.

The painting had long been considered lost, according to Vienna auction house im Kinsky. However, it has now emerged that it had been privately owned by an Austrian citizen.

“The rediscovery of this portrait, one of the most beautiful of Klimt’s last creative period, is a sensation,” the auction house said in a press statement on its website.

The intensely vivid and colorful piece had been documented in catalogues of the artist’s work, but experts had only seen it in a black and white photo.

The painting, described as a "sensation," is expected to fetch up to $54 million when it goes up for sale in April. - Roland Schlager/APA/AFP via Getty Images
The painting, described as a "sensation," is expected to fetch up to $54 million when it goes up for sale in April. - Roland Schlager/APA/AFP via Getty Images

The sitter is known to have been a member of a wealthy Austrian Jewish family who were then part of the upper class of Viennese society, where Klimt found his patrons and clients. Nevertheless, her identity is not completely certain.

Brothers Adolf and Justus Lieser were leading industrialists in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Catalogues of Klimt’s work state that Adolf commissioned the artist to paint his teenage daughter Margarethe Constance. However, new research by the auction house suggests Justus’ wife, Lilly, hired him to paint one of their two daughters.

The statement on the auctioneer’s website reveals that the sitter - whoever she was - visited Klimt’s studio nine times in April and May 1917. He made at least 25 preliminary studies and most likely began the painting in the May of that year.

“The painter chose a three-quarter portrait for his depiction and shows the young woman in a strictly frontal pose, close to the foreground, against a red, undefined background. A cape richly decorated with flowers is draped around her shoulders,” the auction house said.

It added: “The intense colors of the painting and the shift towards loose, open brushstrokes show Klimt at the height of his late period.”

When the artist died of a stroke the following February, the painting was still in his studio - with some small parts not quite finished. It was then given to the Lieser family.

Its exact fate after 1925 is “unclear,” according to the auction house.

“What is known is that it was acquired by a legal predecessor of the consignor in the 1960s and went to the current owner through three successive inheritances,” the statement said.

The painting is to be sold on behalf of its Austrian owners, who have not been named, along with the legal successors of “Adolf and Henriette Lieser based on an agreement in accordance with the Washington Principles of 1998,” the auction house said.

Established in 1998, the Washington Principles charged participating nations with returning Nazi-confiscated art to their rightful owners.

Claudia Mörth-Gasser, specialist in modern art at im Kinsky, explained the situation in an email to CNN.

She said the auctioneer checked the painting’s history and provenance “in all possible ways in Austria,” adding: “We have checked all archives and have found no evidence that the painting has ever been exported out of Austria, confiscated or looted.

But by the same token, she added: “We have no proof that the painting has not ever been looted in the time gap between 1938 and 1945.”

And this is the reason “why we arranged an agreement between the present owner and all descendants of the Lieser family in accordance to the ‘Washington Principles,’” she said.

Klimt’s portraits of women “are seldom offered at auctions,” the press release states. It continues: “A painting of such rarity, artistic significance, and value has not been available on the art market in Central Europe for decades.

The painting will tour internationally ahead of the sale on April 24, stopping in Switzerland, Germany, Britain and Hong Kong.

The last portrait completed by Klimt became the most expensive artwork ever to sell at a European auction, when it fetched a staggering £85.3 million ($108.4 million) in London last year.

Depicting an unidentified female subject, “Dame mit Fächer” (Lady with a Fan) also established a new record for Klimt, outselling “Birch Forest,” which went for $104.6 million in a sale from the collection of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen in 2022.

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