The last portrait painted by Gustav Klimt will carry the highest estimate ever put on a painting in Europe or the UK when it appears at Sotheby’s in London this June, pitched at in excess of £65m. The sale for at least that amount is, effectively, a foregone conclusion as it is guaranteed by a third party.
Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan), painted in 1917, was still on an easel in Klimt’s studio when he died in February 1918. The square format oil on canvas depicts an unknown sitter (though there has been some suggestion she is Johanna Staude, one of Klimt’s favourite models). Klimt was a much in demand portrait artist at the time, commissioned by the rich and fashionable of Vienna, but this is not a commissioned piece—it was painted entirely for his own enjoyment and, as such, has a particular looseness and spontaneity.
“The way her kimono is slipping off her shoulder, the fan seems almost to have been put there to hide her bosom, this is clearly not someone’s daughter who has been sent to have her portrait painted! It is Klimt experimenting and pushing the boundaries,” says Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chairman, Europe, and worldwide head of Impressionist and Modern art.
Klimt’s interest in Chinese and Japanese culture is also palpable—he had a large wardrobe of kimonos and Chinese robes, alongside a collection of Japanese woodblock prints. The motifs in the background and on the robe in Lady with a Fan, such as lotus blossoms, phoenixes and dragons, draw heavily on Chinese design.
Sotheby’s last sold this painting almost 30 years ago, in 1994, for $11.6m (with fees), a moment that Newman remembers well: “Rather embarrassingly I was working at Sotheby’s back then, and it was a big deal at the time as it made a record”. In 1994, the work was sold as part of the collection of Wendell Cherry, the American entrepreneur and art collector. But before that it had been owned by the Viennese industrialist Erwin Böhler, who bought it shortly after Klimt died (Böhler, his brother Heinrich and his cousin Hans were friends and patrons of both Klimt and Egon Schiele.). The painting now comes to market for the first time in 30 years, from the family who bought it in 1994—Sotheby’s will not disclose their reasons for selling it.
The painting was recently the focus of an exhibition, titled Lady with Fan; Gustav Klimt and East-Asia, at Vienna’s Upper Belvedere museum from March 2021 to February 2022.
Most of Klimt’s golden period commissioned portraits are in museums and Newman says the closest comparable portrait to have come to market (relatively) recently is “golden period” Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) which sold at Christie’s in New York for a record $87.9m (with fees) in November 2006 (est. $18m-$25m). The buyer was said to be Oprah Winfrey, who reportedly sold the work on privately for around $150m in 2016. It is currently on display in the National Gallery’s After Impressionism exhibition in London. Another comparable work that changed hands privately is Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which (again, reportedly) was sold to Ronald Lauder for the Neue Galerie in New York for $135m in 2006. Then there was Frauenbildnis, portrait of Ria Munk III, an unfinished work from the same period as Lady with a Fan (both 1917-18), which sold at Christie's in London in 2010 for £18.8m (with fees).
More recently, in 2017, Sotheby’s London sold Klimt’s Bauerngarten (Blumengarten) a 1907 scene of a garden, for £48m (with fees).
Newman says these benchmarks were taken into account when estimating Lady with a Fan, along with the price achieved last month in May for Klimt’s waterscape, Insel im Attersee, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $53.2m to a private Japanese collector. Newman “anticipates” to see strong Asian interest in this work, not least due to its strong Chinese and Japanese aesthetic influence.
“Klimt is in that rare category of artists—including Modigliani, Picasso and Giacometti—whose work has achieved over $100m at auction,” Newman says.
Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) will be offered for sale in Sotheby’s Modern & contemporary evening auction on 27 June in London.