Sultry Klimt portrait breaks European auction record, selling for £85.3m in London

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To some fanfare but little surprise, the last portrait ever painted by Gustav Klimt has sold for a record auction price in Europe, fetching £85.3m (with fees) at Sotheby’s Modern and contemporary art evening sale in London this evening (27 June).

Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917), executed a year before Klimt died in 1918, made headlines when its consignment was announced earlier this month: its estimate, “in excess of £65m”, was the highest of any work offered at auction in the UK and in Europe. Guaranteed by both an irrevocable bid and a third-party guarantee, it was sure to sell. And so it did, hammering at £74m to the well-known adviser Patti Wong—formerly chairperson of Sotheby’s Asia—bidding live in the New Bond Street salesroom on behalf of a Hong Kong-based client.

Providing some welcome punctuation to a thus-far largely flat auction that has seen thin bidding and many works passed or sold below estimate, the Klimt received initial attention from two bidders in the room and two more on the phones. The four-step quickly turned into a two-way tussle between the buyer and the underbidder, liaising on the phone with Sotheby’s Asia deputy chairman Jen Hua. After a heated ten minutes steered by auctioneer Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chairman for Europe and worldwide head of Impressionist and Modern art, the underbidder dropped out of the race at £73.5m.

Klimt’s Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917)

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Klimt painting surpasses the previous title holder of Europe’s most expensive work sold at auction—Alberto Giacometti’s 1961 sculpture L’Homme Qui Marche I, which made £65m (with fees) at Sotheby’s London in 2010. Historic auction records are not adjusted for inflation, nor fluctuations in currency strength.

Depicting a woman with her kimono slipping off her shoulder, the sultry record-breaking portrait is “Klimt experimenting and pushing the boundaries”, Newman says. Sotheby’s last sold this painting almost 30 years ago, in 1994, for $11.6m (with fees), as part of the collection of Wendell Cherry, the American entrepreneur and art collector. It was consigned by the same family who bought it in 1994; Sotheby’s did not disclose their reason for selling it.

Klimt’s auction record stands at $104.5m, achieved at Christie’s New York last November by the 1902 landscape painting Birch Forest, which came from the Paul G. Allen’s collection.

Lady with a Fan is tonight’s star lot and accounts for around one third of the Modern and contemporary evening auction’s £155.5m to £197.5m pre-sale estimate (all pre-sale estimates are calculated without fees). This auction also sees the launch of a new sub-sales category—Face Off—focusing on portraits from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

But beyond the headline-grabbing Klimt, offerings from tonight are considerably more pedestrian, with just two other eight-figure lots coming to the block, both with £8m to £12m estimates: Cy Twombly’s Untitled (1970) and a nude portrait by Lucian Freud of one of his most important sitters, Penny Cuthbertson.

The Modern and contemporary evening auction was preceded by The Now sale, featuring 14 works made in this century, many by rising market stars such as Julien Nguyen and Caroline Walker, as well as more established names like Günther Förg and Mark Bradford. That sale achieved £8.7m (including fees) against an estimate of £6.6m to £9.9m; three lots were withdrawn and one was passed. While new auction records were set for Arthur Jafa and Michel Majerus, hammer prices at ten times the estimates were not seen, as has previously been the case for this category.

  • This article is reporting on an ongoing sale and will be updated.

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