Sultry Klimt portrait smashes 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).

Klimt’s Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917), executed the year before the artist’s death, was the night’s star lot and accounted for close to half of the Modern and contemporary evening auction’s £199m total (with fees), which narrowly surpassed the upper end of its £155.5m to £197.5m pre-sale estimate (calculated without fees). This is Sotheby’s second-highest total for an evening sale in London, after one in March 2022 that made £222m.

Lady with a Fan‘s consignment made headlines when it 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 largely flat portion of the auction that saw thin bidding and several works passed or sold below estimate, the Klimt received initial attention from two bidders in the room and two more on the phones. This four-step quickly turned into a two-way tussle between Wong 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, Hua 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 portrait is “Klimt experimenting and pushing the boundaries”, Newman previously told The Art Newspaper. After the sale, she said that she was “unsurprised” by the amount of attention it received from Asian bidders considering its Chinese and Japanese motifs.

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.

Saving face

The Modern and contemporary art sale opened with a specially themed 24-lot sub-auction—Face to Face—focusing on portraits from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, tied to the recent re-opening of London’s National Portrait Gallery. This included two paintings by the 92-year-old German-British artist Frank Auerbach, one of which broke his auction record when it sold at £5.6m (with fees).

But tonight’s successes are largely those of the headline-grabbing Klimt, which kept a middling sale afloat: just two other eight-figure lots came to the block, both paintings carrying £8m to £12m estimates. A nude portrait by Lucian Freud, consigned by the same owner of the two Auerbachs, received just two bids, one likely from its third party guarantor via specialist Tom Eddison. It hammered to a bidder in the room at £8.1m. Meanwhile Cy Twombly’s Untitled (1970) went with just one bid to its third-party guarantor, for £7.8m. More than one in every three lots tonight was guaranteed.

Just prior to the record-breaking Klimt, the sale suffered a slump that saw a several works hammer below their low estimates, including a 2016 acrylic on PVC panel painting by Kerry James Marshall. Shortly after, two seven-figure oil paintings, one by Edvard Munch and the other by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, failed to find homes, contributing to a less-than-stellar 86% sell-through rate.

“Buyers for several seasons have been more price sensitive,” Newman said after the sale regarding the question of whether the market is undergoing a correction. But “tonight was a strong affirmation of strength in the market”, she continued, adding that the imperfect sell-through rate was due to a relatively large volume: “The results were still strong for an evening sale, one of our best yet.”

Arthur Jafa’s Monster (2016)

The Modern and contemporary evening auction was preceded by The Now sale, featuring 14 works made in (or almost in) this century, many by rising market stars such as Julien Nguyen and Caroline Walker, as well as more established names like Günther Förg. That sale achieved £8.7m (including fees) against an estimate of £6.6m to £9.9m; three lots were withdrawn and one was passed. One of the two guaranteed lots from this sale, a 2018 painting by Mark Bradford, hammered with just one bid at its £2.5m low estimate.

In this leg, bidders were offered some exciting and intriguing works, such as Sarah Lucas’s humorous and idiosyncratic painted bronze sculpture Tit Cat Down, which was shown in her 2015 British Pavilion show at the Venice Biennale. Another Venice star, Simone Leigh, who won the Golden Lion for her best participation in the 2022 biennial’s central exhibition, saw her sculpture Mandeville hammer at £380,000, near its £400,000 high estimate.

New auction records were also set for two critically acclaimed artists: Arthur Jafa, whose arresting photographic self-portrait Monster (2018) made £110,000 against a £60,000 high estimate, and Michel Majerus, whose 1999 painting referencing Jean-Michel Basquiat, MoM Block Nr. 57, made £520,000 against a high estimate of £300,000. Majerus, who died in a plane crash in 2002, has recently been the subject of numerous exhibitions across Germany and the US, spearheaded by his galleries Matthew Marks, neugerriemschneider and Max Hetzler, which hope to position him as one of this century’s greatest artists—and with a market to match.

But hammer prices at ten times the estimates were not seen during this The Now sale, as has previously been the case for this category. While this suggests a continued cooling of a once-red-hot market that reliably front-loaded evening sales, it is difficult to discount the pull of The Now altogether. As a Sotheby’s spokesperson says: “Not a single lot with a low estimate of $1m or more by a young contemporary artist has failed to find a buyer at auction over the past five years.”

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