Lost Klimt Portrait Resurfaces And Could Fetch $54M At Auction

“Portrait of Fräulein Lieser”—which was one of Gustav Klimt’s final works—was missing for a century before it recently resurfaced; now, it’ll be going under the hammer for an expected $54 million. 

Works by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt usually fetch millions or more given the late artist’s renown. The past few years have seen their fair share of valuable Klimt pieces, including the more recent “Dame mit Fächer” (“Lady with a Fan”), which fetched an impressive $108.4 million just last year—and currently stands as the most valuable painting sold in Europe. Now “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser,” a new piece by the master artist that had been missing for 100 years, will be joining the ranks of valuable Klimt portraits in auction history. 

Gustav Klimt’s long-lost “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser”
Gustav Klimt’s long-lost “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser”/Photo from the im Kinsky website

Vienna auction house im Kinsky released an official press release announcing the rediscovery of the portrait, which may fetch $54 million when it goes under the hammer on April 24, 2024. Given how the art market rarely offers Klimt’s portraits of women, one can expect the portrait to fetch even more than the estimated amount. 

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Missing for 100 Years

The significant piece of Klimt’s oeuvre, which experts say was among his final works before his untimely passing from a stroke in February 1918. The three-quarter portrait features a young woman in a vibrant, floral cape gazing straight ahead against a red backdrop. Klimt likely started working on the portrait in May 1917, yet left certain parts of it unfinished upon his passing. The Lieser family, who commissioned the piece, took ownership of it until 1925—its fate afterwards is unclear. 

Captain H H Davies of Birkenhead checking a collection of art that Nazis looted from Holland, a common reason why many works of art have gone missing over the past few decades
Captain H H Davies of Birkenhead checking a collection of art that Nazis looted from Holland, a common reason why many works of art have gone missing over the past few decades/Photo from the Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons

As per im Kinsky, the last and only record of the piece is a black and white photograph from the archives of the Austrian National Library, which contained the note “1925 in possession of Mrs. Lieser, IV, Argentinierstrasse 20.” When the portrait resurfaced, experts found that it had been in the private collection of a family for three generations since the 1960s. 

People can only guess what exactly happened to the work between 1925 to 1960. However, as per a BBC feature by Bethany Bell, it’s quite possible that Nazis confiscated it during the Second World War. This aligns with the auction house’s statement, which says the painting will go under the hammer on behalf of its current owners and legal successors, “based on an agreement in accordance with the Washington Principles of 1998.” The Washington Principles demand that the pieces Nazis looted should be properly restituted. 

The Unidentified Lieser Lady 

Based on research from im Kinsky and official catalogs of Klimt’s works (one from 1967 and two others from 2007 and 2012), the subject of the painting is most certainly a member of the affluent Lieser family. However, it is still uncertain whether the lady is Margarethe Constance Lieser, daughter of prominent industrialist Adolf Lieser, or one of her cousins Helene Lieser and Annie Lieser. 

Klimt's clients were usually members of Vienna's upper-class
Klimt’s clients were usually members of Vienna’s upper-class/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Catalogs on Klimts’s works show that it was Adolf who commissioned the artist to paint his daughter Margarethe. However, the wife of Adolf’s brother, Justus Lieser, was a well-known patron of avant-garde works like Klimt’s—so it may very well be possible that she had asked the painter to create a portrait of one of her daughters, Helene or Annie. 

The Artist’s Last and Greatest

Klimt created both “Lady with a Fan” and “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser” during the last few years of his life. As such, both pieces share similar visual elements that were present in his late style, including “free, open brushwork” that showcased Klimt at the height of his craft, according to im Kinsky. Other recognizable elements include precise, naturalistic strokes that Klimt paired with intense bursts of color and complementary tones. 

Though the piece’s history remains murky, its future as an incredibly coveted and valuable work from a great artist is clear. Luckily, the public will get to see “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser” before it hits the auction block, as im Kinsky will be exhibiting it in various locations around the world, including Hong Kong, Great Britain, Germany, and Switzerland. 

Banner photo from the im Kinsky website

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