A Long-Lost Gustav Klimt Portrait Could Fetch $54M at Auction

Observer 25 January 2024
By Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly

The rare portrait was recently rediscovered by an Austrian auction house.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Fräulein Lieser, (1917)

After having been presumed lost for nearly a century, one of Gustav Klimt’s finest portraits is heading to the auction block in Vienna.

Created in 1917, Klimt’s Portrait of Fräulein Lieser disappeared from public view after a 1925 exhibition. Now, the recently rediscovered painting is expected to realize between 30 million euros ($32 million) and 50 million euros ($54 million) when sold this April with Austrian auction house im Kinsky. “A painting of such rarity, artistic significance and value has not been available on the art market in Central Europe for decades,” said im Kinsky in a statement.

The portrait depicts a young member of the Liesers, a prominent upper-class Viennese family that included industrialist brothers Adolf and Justus Lieser. While previous catalogs of Klimt’s work describe Adolf’s daughter as the portrait’s sitter, new research suggests that the painting’s subject could be one of the daughters of Justus and his wife Henriette, a prominent arts patron, according to the auction house.

Regardless of her identity, the sitter in 1917 made numerous visits to Klimt’s studio in Vienna. The symbolist painter died the following year from a stroke, leaving the unsigned work in his studio. According to the auction house, faint penciled shapes seen on the painting’s background reveal that the artist had potentially planned to further elaborate on the work.

Where has Klimt’s portrait been for the past 100 years?

Following Klimt’s death, the portrait was given to the family who commissioned it. Eight years later, it was last seen in a photograph taken in connection with a Klimt exhibition in Vienna’s Neue Galerie. However, its provenance after 1925 remains largely unknown.

The work was thought to have initially ended up in the hands of either Adolf or Henriette, the latter of whom was murdered after being deported to a concentration camp in 1942. There is no evidence that the work was looted, stolen or otherwise unlawfully seized before or during the Second World War, according to im Kinsky, which noted that the portrait hasn’t been subject to any Nazi-looted art claims.

While its location until 1960 remains shrouded in mystery, the portrait was acquired more than six decades ago by a legal predecessor of its current owner, an anonymous Austrian citizen. After inheriting the work, the owner reached out to im Kinsky’s Ernst Poil, and the painting was identified as the long-lost Portrait of Fräuelin Lieser after Poil examined it with Michael Kovacek, another expert at the auction house.

Based on an agreement in accordance with the Washington Principles of 1998, the portrait will be sold this spring by its current owners alongside the legal successors of Adolf and Henriette. Ahead of the auction, the painting will be exhibited in Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain and Hong Kong.

Klimt’s work has fetched staggering sums at auction in recent years. In June of 2023, his Lady with a Fan painting realized $108.4 million at Sotheby's in London, setting a new auction record for Klimt and becoming the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned in Europe. The sale followed the $53 million Sotheby’s auction of Klimt’s Insel im Attersee in May of that year. And Klimt’s previous auction record was established in 2022, when Birch Forest sold for $104.6 million at a Christie’s auction of the art collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
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