Just a few weeks after a Gustav Klimt seascape landed in the top Impressionist lots of the spring season, offered by Sotheby’s, the auction house has unveiled another rare Klimt portrait—and it has the highest price tag of any work ever offered in Europe.
, painted close to the end of the artist’s life in 1918, will be offered at the evening sale of modern and contemporary art in London on June 27. The presale estimate is in the region of £65 million ($80 million) and since the work is backed by an irrevocable bid, or outside guarantor, it will certainly sell.
The work, the last portrait Klimt ever painted, was touted as “among his finest works, painted when he was still in his artistic prime,” by Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chairman of Europe and worldwide head of Impressionist and modern art.
Klimt first started on the portrait, the sitter for which is not known, when he was already considered among the most sought-after and celebrated portraitists in Europe. However, this was a rare work painted entirely in the pursuit of his own interests, the auction house said.
“Full of freedom and spontaneity, it reflects Klimt’s joy in painting it and in celebrating beauty in its purest form.” Whereas portraits were traditionally painted in the vertical form, here Klimt returned to the square format that he used for his landscapes earlier in the century. The style and symbols also reflect the artist’s well-documented fascination with Japanese and Chinese culture.
Up until the early aughts, the record for a Klimt painting was just under $30 million, set at Sotheby’s New York in 2003. The Klimt market took flight in 2006 after it emerged that cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder purchased (1903-07), a work that was restituted to heirs of a Nazi victim from the Belvedere museum in Austria, in a private sale, for $135 million. The price for the piece, which remains the jewel of Lauder’s Upper East Side museum, the Neue Galerie, shocked many at the time, as it was then the highest known figure ever paid for a painting, even surpassing the then highest-ever auction price of $104 million for Picasso’s sold at Sotheby’s in 2004.
The excitement that surrounded the Lauder purchase immediately and permanently boosted Klimt’s market. The other four remaining works that were restituted to the U.S. heir were sold at Christie’s in November of the same year. , a 1912 portrait with more somber tones, commanded $87.9 million, and is currently the second highest result at auction. For a time, Klimt was the second-most expensive artist at auction after Picasso.
Auction data also reflects the rarity of Klimt paintings on the market. For instance, overall auction sale volume in 2005 was $2.5 million, according to Artnet Analytics (see chart below). In 2006, the same year Lauder bought the portrait of Adele and the remaining four restituted works that also came to auction at Christie’s, overall auction sale volume rocketed to $196.4 million. In 2007, that figure dropped back far closer to previous typical levels, resting at $5 million.
The current auction record for a Klimt painting is the $104.6 million record set last November for Birch Forest (1903) which hailed from the prestigious collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, sold at Christie’s.
Just last month, Sotheby’s sold () (1901-1902), a rare seascape by the artist, painted at his favorite summer vacation spot, a lake near Salzburg. It realized $53.2 million and was also backed by a third party guarantee.
As for ), it was acquired shortly after Klimt’s death by Erwin Böhler, a Viennese industrialist. Böhler, his brother Heinrich, and cousin Hans, were all close friends of both Klimt and Egon Schiele. They even vacationed with Klimt at Attersee.
The work eventually passed to Heinrich and then, after his death in 1940, to Heinrich’s wife Mabel. By 1967 it was in the collection of Rudolf Leopold, who is known to have purchased a large group of Schiele drawings from Mabel Böhler in 1952, and may also have acquired this work from her.
The painting was last offered for sale nearly thirty years ago, in 1994, when it was acquired by the family of the present owner. The price at that time was $11.7 million, sold at an auction at Sotheby’s New York. Most recently it was the subject of an exhibition at the Belvedere in Vienna where it was reunited with and shown alongside Klimt’s other late masterpieces.
Sotheby’s will exhibit the painting at its New Bond Street galleries later this month ahead of the sale. The auction house said the display “will mark a major moment” for Klimt fans in London, with three major portraits by the artist on view simultaneously. The other portraits, (1904) and (1912), are currently on view in the National Gallery’s show “After Impressionism.”
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