Lost Klimt portrait sells for €30m in Vienna auction

A late portrait by Gustav Klimt, previously believed lost, has recently been sold at auction in Vienna for a staggering €30 million. Titled “Portrait of Fräulein Lieser” and painted in 1917, this artwork, surrounded by mysteries, fetched a hammer price of €30 million (€35 million with fees) at Im Kinsky, setting a new auction record for Austria.

The discovery of this portrait was described by the Vienna auction house as “a sensation”. Previously known only from a black-and-white photograph, the painting had been believed lost until Im Kinsky received a phone call from the consignor about 16 months ago.

The sale price, though at the lower end of the estimate range of €30 million to €50 million, still marked a significant milestone, setting a new record for Austrian auctions. This price is more than four times the previous Austrian record set in 2010 when the Dorotheum auction house sold a painting by Frans Francken II for just over €7 million. The all-time record for a Klimt at auction was set last June at Sotheby’s in London when his portrait “Dame mit Fächer” (Lady with a Fan, 1917) sold for £85.3 million (including fees).

“Of course, we are delighted with the result but not really surprised,” said Claudia Mörth-Gasser, Im Kinsky’s Klimt expert, in a statement.

Much about the Klimt portrait remains unclear: the identity of the sitter, the commissioner, and its history during the Second World War. The painting’s pre-war owner is also uncertain. Because of doubts about the pre-war owner’s identity, the auction house negotiated a settlement between the consignor and the heirs of two branches of the Lieser family, important Jewish industrialists in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The heirs will receive a share of the proceeds from the auction, according to Ernst Ploil, a director of Im Kinsky, who announced the sale at a press conference in January. The settlement is based on the assumption that the portrait was unlawfully expropriated during the Nazi era, although this is not proven.

“What is certain is that the painting was still in Klimt’s studio at the time of his death,” in 1918, Ploil said. Klimt never quite finished it, and it remained unsigned. From the studio, it is presumed to have been delivered by the executors of Klimt’s will to whoever commissioned it. Unusually, “there are no stamps or stickers on the back of the painting,” Ploil said.

The identities of both the subject and the client are up for debate. Klimt’s own notes identify the commissioning party only as “Lieser”. It was long believed—and recorded in the Klimt catalogue raisonné—that the painting was commissioned by Adolf Lieser and portrayed his daughter, Margarethe Constance Lieser.

However, Im Kinsky now believes the portrait may have been commissioned by Henriette Lieser-Landau, the ex-wife of Justus Lieser, Adolf’s brother, Ploil said. Henriette, an arts patron and friend of Alma Mahler, had two daughters—Annie and Helene—who could have been the subject of the painting. A report in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard said Annie’s US immigration documents recorded her eyes as grey, while the girl in the painting has brown eyes. But Helene, who became a successful economist, did have brown eyes, Der Standard reported.

Henriette Lieser-Landau was deported in 1942 and murdered in 1943. A black-and-white negative of the painting in the Austrian National Library was archived with a note saying “1925 in the possession of Frau Lieser IV., Argentinierstrasse 20”. Der Standard said that was Henriette’s address.

But Tobias Natter, one of the authors of the catalogue raisonné, remains unconvinced. He still sees an “overwhelming probability” that the sitter was Margarethe Constance Lieser, he says.

He notes that the inventory of her possessions that Henriette was forced to compile by the Nazis made no mention of the portrait, while other objects—art but also porcelain and household items—were listed in detail.

Adding to the arguments for Margarethe Constance is the fact that her son, William Heinrich de Gelsey, was trying to trace a Klimt portrait of his mother before he died in 2021, according to Austria’s Kronen Zeitung. In a commentary on April 21, the paper suggested it would have been better to postpone the settlement and auction until the mystery was solved.

The identity of the client is “not just an academic question, it is a very relevant question relating to the provenance,” Natter said.