Gustav Klimt's last portrait set to break European records with a US$80m estimate

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, Gustav 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. While the former has been the star of the Upper Belvedere in Vienna for decades, the latter has now arrived at Sotheby's London. 

In its upcoming evening sale, the work, which belongs to a small group of the artist's portraits still in private hands, is estimated to sell in the region of £65 million (US$80 million) – the highest price tag ever placed for a work offered in Europe.

Backed by an irrevocable bid, the portrait is guaranteed to sell – the only question remains which auction records it will break.

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

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

Lot 125 | Gustav Klimt | Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan), Oil on canvas
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

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

Gustav 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. 

Currently, Klimt's auction record stands at a staggering US$104.6 million, set last year at Christie's New York for a landscape painting Birch Forest (1903), which hailed from the esteemed collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

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

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

Born in mid-19th-century Vienna – the traditional city of academic art – Klimt first achieved acclaim as a decorative painter of historical scenes and figures through his commissions for interior murals and ceilings in large public buildings. 

Influenced by the sudden loss of both his father and brother, Klimt took a radical turn away from conservative Viennese art and rejected classic style. Along with a number of like-minded young artists seeking a renewal of art, he founded the Vienna Secession in 1897, a group that aimed at providing platforms for boundary-pushing art.

With this movement, the city was brought to the forefront of modernity and entered a new golden age. While Klimt continuously explored sensuality and eroticism in his paintings, he also adopted a new approach to materials, incorporating gold leaf into his works – which marked the start of his career's most successful period.

By the end of 1917, Klimt had gained fame and wealth, allowing him to paint entirely for his own interests. And in Lady with a Fan, we discover the artist's deep passion for East-Asian culture. 

Another leading light of Viennese modernism, Egon Schiele, once described Klimt's home like this: ‘another room whose wall was entirely covered by a huge wardrobe, which held his marvelous collection of Chinese and Japanese robes.’

Whereas most of Klimt's portraits feature society elites, the identity of the lady here 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

Gustav Klmit, Austrian Symbolist painter

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. In addition to that auction, it has only been on public display four times over the years: Vienna Art Show in 1920, Isetan Museum in Tokyo in 1981, Nassau County Museum of Art in New York in 1989, and the Upper Belvedere from 2021 to 2022. 

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

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)

Claude Monet's Le basin aux nymphéas | Sold: £40.9 million (US$80.4 million), Christie's London, 2008 (One of the auction records for any painting sold in Europe)

René Magritte's L’empire des lumières | Sold: £59.4 million (US$79.8 million), Sotheby's London, 2022 (One of the auction records for any painting sold in Europe)

Expected to fetch in the region of £65 million (US$80 million), Lady with a Fan will have the potential to break the following records:

  1. Artist's auction record | US$104,585,000 (£92 million), New York
  2. Any work of art sold at auction in Europe | £65,001,250 (US$104 million), London
  3. Any painting sold at auction in Europe | £40,921,250 (US$80.4 million) / £59,422,000 (US$79.8 million), London

Notably, the European auction record for a painting is dependent on the currency used as the benchmark.

In 2008, Claude Monet's Le Bassin Aux Nymphéas (Water Lily Pond) set that record when it fetched £40.9 million. Due to the strength of the Pound at the time, the US dollar equivalent would be US$80.4 million. In 2022, René Magritte's L’empire des lumières (The Empire of Light) sold for £59.4 million, yet converted to US$79.8 million, based on a less favorable exchange rate.

Either way, however, the present painting is likely to smash that record. As for the other two records, it remains to be revealed later this month, depending on the final price realized and the exchange rate.