Gustav Klimt's final masterpiece goes for a European record US$108.4m to a Hong Kong collector

Causing a stir of excitement in the art market, Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan), the last portrait painted by Gustav Klimt, sold for £85.3 million (US$108.4 million) at Sotheby's London on 27 June.

The result was a record high for any work of art ever sold at auction in Europe and also one of the highest for the well-known Austrian master artist.

Following intense competition from Asian collectors, the work went to Patti Wong – co-founder of art advisory firm Patti Wong & Associates, and former International Chairman of Sotheby's – who was bidding live on behalf of a Hong Kong collector.

Patti Wong, co-founder of Hong Kong-based art advisory firm Patti Wong & Associates (PW&A), and former International Chairman of Sotheby's

Lot 125 | Gustav Klimt | Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan), Oil on canvas (Auction record for a work of art in Europe)
Executed in 1917-18
100.2 x 100.2 cm

  • Galerie Gustav Nebehay, Vienna
  • Erwin Böhler, Vienna (acquired by 1920)
  • Heinrich Böhler, Vienna and St. Moritz (brother of the above; acquired from the above)
  • Mabel Böhler, Lugano (wife of the above; inherited from the above in 1940)
  • Dr Rudolf Leopold, Vienna (acquired from the above circa 1963 and until at least 1981)
  • Serge Sabarsky, New York
  • Wendell Cherry, New York and Louisville, Kentucky (acquired from the above by 1988)
  • Sotheby’s, New York, 11 May 1994, lot 44 (consigned by the estate of the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the family of the present owner 

Expected to fetch in the region of £65 million / US$80 million
Hammer Price: £74,000,000
Sold: £85,305,800 (US$108.4 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 27 June 2023

Opening at £58 million, the star lot inspired a fierce bidding war among mainly three bidders: a gentleman in the salesroom; Patti Wong bidding live for her Hong Kong client; and Jen Hua (Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and Chairman, China), presumably representing an Asian collector.

For around ten minutes, the trio fired back and forth, inching the price up by half-million and million increments. By £73 million, both Jen Hua and the floor bidder proclaimed to quit the competition, and auctioneer Helena Newman was about to knock down the hammer.

Yet, after deliberation, Jen Hua's client came through, offering another bid of £73.5 million. Patti Wong persisted in her bidding though, eventually winning the lot at a hammer price of £74 million.

In December 2022, Patti Wong stunned the auction industry as she retired from her position as Sotheby’s international chairman, ending her 30-year tenure with the house. At the beginning of this year, the former auction rainmaker made headlines again with the announcement of the launch of Patti Wong & Associates (PW&A) – an art advisory firm co-founded by Patti and another auction veteran Daryl Wickstrom.

*More on the story behind the launch of PW&A: The launch of PW&A: Interview with ex-Sotheby's rainmaker on her road to entrepreneurship

Patti Wong and Daryl Wickstrom co-founded art advisory firm Patti Wong & Associates

Patti Wong bidding live in the London salesroom; the gentleman next to her was Daryl Wickstrom

With a final price with fees of £85.3 million – equivalent to US$108 million based on the current exchange rate – Lady with a Fan has become the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction in Europe, beating the £65 million (US$104 million) achieved for Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture The Walking Man I, which was also sold at Sotheby's London in 2010. 

As to whether or not the work has claimed the auction record for Klimt, it would depend on which currency is used as the benchmark:

  • Birch Forest (1903) | Sold: US$104,585,000 (around £92 million), Christie's New York, 10 November 2022
  • Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917-18) | Sold: £85,305,800 (around US$108 million), Sotheby's London, 27 June 2023

In US dollar, Lady with a Fan is a record high for any Klimt's work ever sold at auction; in pound sterling, the record is held by Birch Forest, which hailed from the esteemed collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

Alberto Giacometti's Walking Man I | Sold: £65 million (US$104.3 million), Sotheby's London, 2010 (Auction record for any work of art sold in Europe)

Birch Forest (1903) | Sold: US$104 million, Christie's New York, 2022

Klimt, a creative giant who defined the era of Viennese Modernism, has always been one of the best-selling artists worldwide. Back in the early 20th century, he was among the most celebrated portraitists in Europe: commissions came thick and fast, for which he was able to command prices far higher than any of his contemporaries. 

Following Klimt's death from a stroke and pneumonia, most of his artistic legacy – especially those golden-period commissioned portraits – are now held by museums, leaving very few ever available for public or private sale.

One comparable portrait, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), sold for a then-record US$87.9 million in 2006 at Christie's New York. The buyer was known to be Oprah Winfrey, who reportedly sold it privately for around US$150 million ten years later to a Chinese collector. 

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) | Sold: US$87.9 million, Christie's New York, 2006

Gustav Klmit, Austrian Symbolist painter

1918 was the year Spanish flu swept across the globe, claiming more lives than all those lost in World War I. It was also the year Vienna's Golden Age drew to a close with the unexpected loss of its most gilded talent, Klimt. 

Left in his studio were two unfinished paintings still standing on easels: The Bride, clearly a work in progress, and Lady with a Fan, with only a few finishing touches away from completion. For decades, The Bride has been a prized work of the Upper Belvedere in Vienna. 

In 2021, the museum managed to borrow Lady with a Fan for an exhibition, bringing the two works together after more than a century had passed. 

Lady with a Fan (right) and The Bride (left) on easels in Klimt's studio, 1918

Lady with a Fan (left) and the unfinished The Bride (right) on exhibition at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna

The Bride, Klimt's late unfinished work, has been on a long-term loan at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna

Painted at a time when Klimt had gained immense fame and wealth from commissions, Lady with a Fan witnesses the artist's full expression to his complete fascination with East-Asian culture. 

Whereas most of Klimt's portraits feature society elites, the identity of the lady in the present work remains a mystery.

Wrapped in a Chinese robe or a Japanese kimono, the Viennese classic beauty is transformed into an alluring Japanese geisha of sorts: her head held high, her shoulders flirtatiously exposed, her bare bosom covered by a decorated fan, and herself held with poise and quiet self-assurance.

She is surrounded by a whirl of Chinese and Japanese patterns and motifs: a golden pheasant, a crane, lotus flowers in bloom, and, most significantly, a Chinese phoenix in full flight. As with the background color of yellow, all are emblematic of good fortune. 

Lady with Fan hanging in Erwin Bohler's apartment, circa 1920

Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) (circa 1901–02) | Sold: US$53,188,500, Sotheby's New York, May 2023

Shortly after Klimt's untimely death, aged 55, the work was acquired by Viennese industrialist Erwin Böhler, whose family were close friends and patrons of the artist and Egon Schiele.

Together, they would vacation on the Attersee, a lake near Salzburg that served as the inspiration for many of Klimt's landscapes – including one that sold for US$53.2 million at Sotheby's New York last month.

After changing hands a few times within the Böhlers, Lady with a Fan made its way to Austrian art collector Rudolf Leopold in the 1960s and went to American entrepreneur Wendell Cherry in 1988. 

In 1994, the painting was sold as part of Cherry's estate at Sotheby's New York, going for US$11.6 million to the present owner.