Long-lost Klimt painting surfaces after 100 years, sells for $32 million

Prior to its public reveal in 2023, the only known image of the portrait was a 1925 black and white photo

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Klimpt's Portrait of Fräulein Lieser had sat in a private collection for decades, thought to be lost forever (Credit: im Kinsky)

A long-lost Gustav Klimt portrait sold for $32 million Wednesday in Vienna.

Klimt, an Austrian modernist painter known as a key member of the Symbolist Movement, which included other artists such as Paul Gauguin and Gustave Moreau, has long been one of the top-selling artists at auction. He previously set records with the 2006 sale of his Woman in Gold for $135 million to Ronald Lauder — the most expensive painting ever sold at the time.

Klimt’s Portrait of Fräulein Lieser was produced over a period of nine sessions in 1917, during which a young daughter from a wealthy Jewish family sat and posed for the artist in his Vienna studio.

Due to Klimt’s 1918 death, the portrait was left unfinished in his studio before entering into the possession of the family who commissioned it. Excluding a 1925 photograph of the painting, which is currently held in the archives of the Austrian National Library, the painting had seemingly vanished from public view.

For decades, this 1925 photo was the only image known by historians and researchers used to establish the painting’s existence.

The only known photograph of Klimt’s Portrait of Fräulein Lieser from 1925 (Credit: Austrian National Library)
The only known photograph of Klimt’s Portrait of Fräulein Lieser from 1925 (Credit: Austrian National Library)

Then, in January 2023, the consigners approached Viennese auction house im Kinsky with the painting, revealing the piece to the art community for the first time in a century.

Estimates for the highly-anticipated sale of the portrait reached $54 million. The $32 million result Wednesday night was certainly a disappointment, especially in the context of one of the more recent Klimpt sales, a $104.3 million painting titled Lady with a Fan, which sold in June 2023 and set a record for any European public sale).

“The rediscovery of this portrait, one of the most beautiful of Klimt's last creative period, is a sensation,” im Kinsky said in a press release. “Klimt's paintings rank in the top echelons of the international art market. His portraits of women are seldom offered at auctions. A painting of such rarity, artistic significance, and value has not been available on the art market in Central Europe for decades. This also applies to Austria, where no work of art of even approximate importance has been available.”

The chain of custody represents a particularly significant element in the story of this painting, not only due to its long-lost history, but also as a result of the common practice of Nazis looting Austrian art from the period during World War II.

Given the fact the commissioners were a Jewish family, a large contingency of the art community believes the painting was confiscated by Nazis between 1939-41, thanks in large part due to research published in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.

Klimpt's Vienna studio, c. 1918
Klimpt's Vienna studio, c. 1918

The auction house takes no official stance on the possible looting, writing in their lot description: “The exact fate of the painting after 1925 is unclear. What is known is that it was acquired by a legal predecessor of the consignor in the 1960s and went to the current owner through three successive inheritances.”

Despite lacking consensus over the provenance of the painting, the proceeds of the sale have been split between the consignors and the descendants of the original commissioners, in accordance with the Washington Principles of 1998, a series of guidelines concerning Nazi-confiscated art and its subsequent sale on the secondary market.

im Kinsky’s previous record sale came in 2010 for a $6.1 million Egon Schiele painting.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.