Klimt Portrait, Believed Lost for Almost 100 Years, to Be Auctioned in April

portrait of fräulein lieser
Klimt Portrait, Believed Lost for Decades, Courtesy Im Kinsky

A portrait by Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Fräulein Lieser," was believed to be lost for nearly a century. Recently found, it will go up for auction in April in Vienna.

"The rediscovery of this portrait of a woman, one of the most beautiful portraits of Klimt’s final period of creativity, is a sensation," auction house Im Kinsky said in a statement. "While the picture is documented in Klimt catalogue raisonnées, it was only known to art historians as a black and white photograph." They added, "A painting of such rarity, artistic significance and value has not been available on the art market in Central Europe for decades."

Only identified as "Lieser," art historians have thought that the sitter could be Margarethe Constance Lieser, the daughter of Adolf Lieser, but new research shows it could be one of the daughters of Adolf's brother Justus Lieser and Henriette Amalie "Lilly" Lieser-Landau: Helene Lieser or Annie Lieser. (Henriette Lieser was a noted patron of the arts in Vienna; she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.)

Per Im Kinsky, "The Lieser family belonged to the circle of wealthy, upper-class Viennese society in which Klimt found his patrons and clients. The brothers Adolf and Justus Lieser were among the leading industrialists of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Henriette Amalie Lieser-Landau, known as Lilly, was married to Justus Lieser until 1905 and was a patron of the avant-garde. Catalogs of Klimt's paintings state that Adolf Lieser commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint a portrait of his eighteen-year-old daughter Margarethe Constance. However, there is some suggestion that the art-loving Lilly Lieser commissioned Klimt to immortalize one of her two daughters."

Whichever Lieser woman it was, she visited Klimt's studios nine times in April and May 1917. When Klimt died in February 1918, it was left in his studio, with small parts unfinished. After 1925, the painting disappears. In 1960, it was acquired by a private Austrian family, and went to the current owner (who is remaining anonymous) through three successive inheritances. "We have a gap between 1925 and the 1960s," art law expert Ernst Ploil said. "There are no indications of any illegal confiscation during the Nazi era, i.e. the usual stamps from the Gestapo or a shipping house where looted art was stored."

After acquiring the portrait, the auction house contacted the heirs of of Adolf and Henriette Lieser, and they will receive a portion of the proceeds from the auction, on the basis of an agreement with 1998 Washington Principles—which outlines the return of Nazi-stolen art. "Portrait of Fräulein Lieser" will be up for auction at im Kinsky in Vienna on April 24, 2024.

It's valued to sell for $33 to $55 million, but Klimt artworks have gone for record-breaking prices lately, including "Lady with a Fan," which sold for $108.4 million in June 2023 and "Birch Forest," which sold for $104.6 million in 2022 (as part of the sale of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's art collection).

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