Gustav Klimt’s Last Portrait Is Already Breaking Auction Records

The privately held painting is one of the few remaining Klimt works not hanging in a museum.

The final portrait painted by Gustav Klimt, a soft-toned painting of a pale and dark-haired woman whose identity remains unknown, is coming to auction later this month with the highest estimate of any work sold in Europe. Belonging to a small group of Klimt’s portraits which remain in private hands, Lady with a Fan is estimated to sell in the region of $80 million, as announced by Sotheby's yesterday (June 14).

Square portrait of woman holding fan with Asian inspired background
Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady with a Fan’. Sotheby's

Klimt, the Austrian artist known for his depictions of the female body and uniquely gold-flecked works, began working on Lady with a Fan in 1917 shortly before his untimely death during the 1918 flu pandemic. The square portrait will be sold by Sotheby’s in London on June 27. “Not only is the painting the most valuable ever to have been offered at auction in Europe, it also now joins the ranks of the most valuable portraits—of any era—ever to have come to auction,” said Sotheby’s.

Found in Klimt’s studio at the time of his death, the portrait marked a departure from the artist’s previous commissioned and formal portraits. The juxtaposing patterns and use of color throughout the work represent “something completely different—a technical tour de force, full of boundary-pushing experimentation, as well as a heartfelt ode to absolute beauty,” said Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, in a statement. The portrait’s use of symbols like phoenixes and lotus blossoms and its flat background also point to Klimt drawing  inspiration from Chinese and Japanese artwork.

Black and white painting shows two easels holding paintings in studio.
Two paintings, including Woman with a Fan, at Gustav Klimt’s studio in 1918. Imagno//Getty Images

Initially owned by Erwin Bohler, a Viennese industrialist, Lady with a Fan made its way to art collector Rudolf Leopold in the 1960s before it was acquired by the present owner, whose identity was not released by Sotheby’s. Its high estimate sets up the painting’s potential to break European auction records. The most valuable works sold in the region previously were Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I, which realized $104.3 million in 2020, followed by Claude Monet’s Le bassin aux nympheas, which fetched $80.4 million four years prior.

How much do Gustav Klimt’s works typically sell for?

The high estimate of Lady with a Fan reflects the rarity of Klimt portraits held in private hands, as majority of his high-profile paintings are held in museums. The artist’s renowned work The Kiss is currently held at the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna alongside his portrait Judith I, while Klimt’s Danae hangs at Vienna’s Galerie Wurthle.

People stand around Klimt's The Kiss painting, hanging on museum wall
Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss on display at the Belvedere Museum. AFP via Getty Images

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, the only other portrait at a similar caliber to be auctioned off previously, according to Sotheby’s, was purchased for $87.8 million in 2006 by Oprah Winfrey, who later sold the work for $150 million in a private sale. Meanwhile, Klimt’s golden Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was also sold in a private sale when it was acquired in 2006 for $135 million by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, the highest sum paid for a painting at the time.

While auctions of Klimt’s art over the past three years have an average sale price of $2 million, according to data from Artsy, the majority of his lots at this price level are studies and sketches. The artist’s finished paintings typically fetch millions, with Klimt’s Birch Forest bringing in $104.5 million during Christie’s record-breaking sale of Paul Allen’s collection in November. Earlier this year, the artist’s Insel im Attersee  sold for $53.1 million at Sotheby’s.

Gustav Klimt’s Last Portrait Is Already Breaking Auction Records