Klimt's late portrait, thought lost for nearly a century, heads to Viennese auction with an estimate of US$32m

Last June, Austrian master artist Gustav Klimt was brought to the forefront of the auction world as one of his final portraits, Lady with a Fan (1917), sold to a Hong Kong collector for a whopping £85.3 million (US$108 million) – the highest price ever paid for any artwork in Europe. 

This year, another Klimt portrait of a similar period, Portrait of Fräulein Lieser (1917), which was hidden in a private collection and believed lost for almost 100 years, resurfaces in the market and could fetch US$32.4 million when it hits the auction block at im Kinsky in Vienna this April.

Ahead of the sale, the piece will embark on a worldwide tour with planned stops in Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain, and Hong Kong. 

Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918) | Portrait of Fräulein Lieser, Oil on canvas
Created in 1917
140 x 80 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Adolf Lieser or Henriette Lieser, Vienna
  • Art dealer, Vienna
  • Austrian private property since the 1960s

Estimate: €30,000,000 - 50,000,000 (US$32.4 - 54.1 million)

Auction House: im Kinsky
Sale: The Gustav Klimt Sale
Date: 24 April 2024

While very little about the work's provenance was documented, what is known is that Klimt started work on the piece in 1917, by which time 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.

The patron's name of this piece was listed only as "Mrs. Lieser" – an upper-class family of leading Jewish industrialists of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. For decades, the work was believed to be commissioned by Adolf Lieser and portrayed his 18-year-old daughter, Margarethe Constance.

The sitter of the portrait could be Helene Lieser

New research by the auction house, however, opens up the possibility that Klimt’s model could have been another member of the Lieser family: either Helene, the first-born of the art-loving Henriette Amalie Lieser-Landau, then-wife of Adolf’s brother Justus, or their younger daughter, Annie. During the Nazi period, Henriette was deported and murdered in the Holocaust.

Regardless of the sitter's exact identity, the auction house said she visited Klimt’s studio nine times in April and May 1917 to pose for him, who made at least 25 preliminary studies on the subject.

Following Klimt’s death on 6 February 1918, the painting was left in his studio, barring a few unfinished spots, most notably in the orange-red background where a few charcoal markings were probably not painted in. It was then delivered by the executors of his will to whoever commissioned it. 

A few charcoal markings were probably not painted in

Austrian master Gustav Klimt

Its whereabouts from there through 1960 remain largely a mystery, with the only existing record being a black-and-white photograph from 1925, around the time it last appeared in the public eye in a Viennese exhibition, that was held in the archives of the Austrian National Library. 

According to the auction house, it was acquired by a legal predecessor of the consignor in the 1960s and went to the current Austrian owner through three successive inheritances.

Unusually, there are no stamps or stickers on the back of the painting, but the auction house said it has "checked [the] history and provenance of the painting in all possible ways in Austria" and found no evidence of it being exported, confiscated, or looted during the Nazi era. 

Still, there was no proof that the work was not stolen, so the auction house had "assumed a worst-case scenario" and reached an agreement with the present owner and the Lieser heirs based on the Washington Principles, a set of guidelines for identifying and returning looted art, and both parties will receive a share of the proceeds from the auction. 

The only known photograph of the painting (left) is held in the archives of the Austrian National Library

Notably, it is rare for a work of such calibre to be offered in Vienna, instead of New York, London, or Hong Kong, where important auctions usually take place. 

Last year, as Lady with a Fan set an auction record for any artwork in Europe – and tied Klimt's auction record held by the US$104.6-million (about £92-million) Birch Forest (1903) from the legendary Paul Allen collection – many speculated who is the new owner of the portrait. 

It is known that the work was acquired by a Hong Kong collector through Patti Wong, co-founder of the art advisory firm Patti Wong & Associates and former International Chairman of Sotheby's.

One of the most discussed names was Rosaline Wong Wing-yue, the founder of Hong Kong gallery and investment advisory HomeArt, and a heavyweight collector who has close relationships with several Hong Kong tycoons such as Henry Cheng Kar-shun and Joseph Lau Luen-hung. 

Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) | Sold: £85,305,800 (US$108.4 million), Sotheby's London, 27 June 2023

Birch Forest (1903)

Rosaline Wong (second right) attended the opening ceremony of the Rosaline Wong Gallery at Jesus College, University of Oxford

In 2022, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam held the Golden Boy – Gustav Klimt exhibition, and Wong's company HomeArt appeared to be the lender of not just one but two iconic masterpieces. 

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

Another piece, Wasserschlangen II (1904-1907), has recently been at the centre of the art world as it was one of the four works involved in the Sotheby's vs Dmitry Rybolovlev lawsuit. The Russian oligarch purchased it at US$183.3 million in 2012 and sold it to an Asian collector for US$170 million in 2015. 

Whether or not Wong was the actual buyer of those Klimts could not be confirmed, but it is certain that she is a top player in the region, with a namesake gallery that showcases part of her collection opening at Jesus College at the University of Oxford in 2022. And whether this Portrait of Fräulein Lieser would go to Hong Kong collector's hands remains to be seen. 

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) 

Wasserschlangen II (1904-1907)