Last Portrait by Gustav Klimt, ‘Dame mit Fächer,’ Expected to Shatter European Auction Records

An auction at Sotheby’s in London will showcase Gustav Klimt’s last portrait, expected to fetch the highest estimate ever placed on a painting in Europe or the UK. With a valuation exceeding £65 million, the sale of “Dame mit Fächer” (Lady with a Fan) is virtually assured as a third party guarantees it.

Painted in 1917, the oil on canvas depicts an unknown sitter and was still on Klimt’s easel when he passed away in February 1918. Although Klimt was renowned as a highly sought-after portrait artist at the time, often commissioned by Vienna’s affluent and fashionable circles, this particular artwork was painted solely for his enjoyment. As a result, it possesses a distinct looseness and spontaneity.

Helena Newman, the Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and Worldwide Head of Impressionist and Modern Art, describes the painting as a departure from traditional commissioned works. She points to the way the subject’s kimono slips off her shoulder and the fan strategically placed to conceal her bosom, suggesting that this portrait is not of someone’s daughter sent to have her likeness captured. Instead, Klimt’s experimentation and desire to push boundaries are evident.

Klimt’s fascination with Chinese and Japanese culture is also notable, reflected in his extensive collection of kimonos, Chinese robes, and Japanese woodblock prints. The motifs adorning the background and the subject’s robe in “Lady with a Fan,” such as lotus blossoms, phoenixes, and dragons, draw heavily from a Chinese design.

Sotheby’s last sold this painting almost 30 years ago, in 1994, for $11.6 million (including fees). Newman recalls the significance of that moment, as it set a record at the time. The painting was part of the collection of Wendell Cherry, an American entrepreneur and art collector. Before Cherry, the Viennese industrialist Erwin Böhler owned the artwork shortly after Klimt’s death. Böhler and his family were friends and patrons of both Klimt and Egon Schiele. After three decades, the painting returns to the market, offered by the family that acquired it in 1994. Sotheby’s has chosen not to disclose their reasons for selling.

The painting took centre stage in a recent exhibition titled “Lady with Fan: Gustav Klimt and East-Asia” at Vienna’s Upper Belvedere Museum from March 2021 to February 2022.

While most of Klimt’s commissioned portraits from his golden period reside in museums, Newman suggests that the closest comparable portrait sold relatively recently is “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” from 1912. This work achieved a record-breaking $87.9 million (including fees) at Christie’s in New York in November 2006, with Oprah Winfrey reportedly being the buyer. Another comparable work, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was privately sold to Ronald Lauder for the Neue Galerie in New York for $135 million in 2006. Additionally, “Frauenbildnis,” an unfinished work from the same period as “Lady with a Fan,” sold at Christie’s in London in 2010 for £18.8 million (including fees). In 2017, Klimt’s “Bauerngarten” (Blumengarten), a garden scene from 1907, sold at Sotheby’s London for £48 million (including fees).

Newman explains that these benchmark sales and the recent sale of Klimt’s waterscape “Insel im Attersee” for $53.2 million at Sotheby’s in New York in May influenced the estimation for “Lady with a Fan.” She anticipates strong interest from Asian buyers due to the painting’s distinct Chinese and Japanese aesthetic influence.

Newman concludes by placing Klimt in the rare category of artists, including Modigliani, Picasso, and Giacometti, whose works have achieved prices exceeding $100 million at auction. “Dame mit Fächer” (Lady with a Fan) will be available for sale at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Evening.