Gustav Klimt, Bauerngarten, 1907. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Last year the billionaire talk show host Oprah Winfrey sold the Gustav Klimt painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) to a Chinese buyer for $150 million. As Bloomberg first reported, the deal was one of the biggest private sales of 2016 and represented a near-doubling of the work’s price, just 10 years after she bought it for $87.9 million. And that wasn’t even the highest price the painter has fetched of late. A year earlier, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev sold Water Serpents II (1904–07) privately for $170 million to an unknown Asian buyer.
“It’s an excellent time to be selling a Klimt,” says Thomas Bompard, a Senior Director in the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Sotheby’s, which is auctioning the Viennese Secessionist artist’s vibrant landscape painting, Bauerngarten (1907), with an estimate in excess of $45 million, on March 1st. The painting last sold in 1994 for $5.8 million.
Bompard says two factors have contributed to the recent steep rise in prices for Klimt’s work. One is the rarity of his works on the market: Klimt only created around 250 paintings in his whole life, most of which are now in museums.
The other is the growing number of Asian collectors who have recently been snapping up trophy works by Western Modernists such as Klimt, Picasso, and Van Gogh. Over the past five years, Sotheby’s has seen a 69% increase in the number of Asian buyers in its Impressionist and Modern art sales, a Sotheby’s spokeswoman said.
“Klimt appeals to Asian buyers because he often blurs the boundaries between decorative and fine art, painting and drawing,” Bompard says.
Klimt only painted around 55 square-format landscapes like Bauerngarten—a composition he adopted quite early in his career, according to the Viennese curator Alfred Weidinger, who wrote the 2007 catalogue raisonné of Klimt’s paintings.
“There are very few landscapes by Klimt left in private hands,” Bombard says. “Works that tick all the boxes—sublimely executed, impeccable provenance, excellent condition—only come on the market every 20 years.”
That scarcity, combined with growing demand from Asian collectors, is expected to push his work to new auction highs come March. “Collectors should be prepared to commit at the highest level if they want to be sure to hang this painting on their wall,” he says.
For example, the current record for a Klimt landscape painting at auction is $43 million, on a par with the estimate for Bauerngarten, but Bompard expects that figure to be surpassed. Weidinger says he knows at least three Asian collectors are looking for works by the Austrian artist, one of whom was the deep-pocketed likely buyer of Adele Bloch-Bauer II last year.
Interest for Bauerngarten is not limited to Asia, says Weidinger, who describes the work as one of Klimt’s 10 best landscape paintings. Klimt painted most of his landscapes, including Bauerngarten, in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, at Lake Attersee and elsewhere. And, as it happens, “a non-Asian collector with a country house on Attersee is searching for an important piece,” according to the curator.
Growing demand and a sharp uptick in prices have also drawn a rare portrait onto the market—and with it a disagreement over provenance. Mädchen im Grünen (Girl in the Foliage) (1896) is expected to sell for £1.2 million to £1.8 million, a fair estimate for a small canvas created so early in Klimt’s career, says Weidinger.
However, Bibiana Preisinger, whose name is listed in the portrait’s provenance notes in the Sotheby’s sale catalogue, is disputing whether she ever sold the work. The provenance entry says the late Viennese-born, New York-based dealer Serge Sabarsky bought the painting from Preisinger around 1972, but she believes it was lost during the renovation of her family home following the death of her father in 1971, according to her lawyer, Alfred Noll.
Michael Lesh, the lawyer who represents the Sabarsky estate and is selling the work, said Preisinger had originally said the painting was stolen by her husband during a messy divorce in the 1970s.
But Noll said Preisinger does not know where the painting went. “It could have been [taken by] her ex-husband, but Preisinger never ever had a concrete suspicion against him,” he said, adding that it could also have been removed by a hired worker during the renovation.
Weidinger’s catalogue raisonné notes that the painting was lost after 1972, but the work is not listed on the Art Loss Register database, and a Sotheby’s spokeswoman said there was “no suggestion that the painting has ever been reported as lost, either before 1972 or at any time since.”
She said Noll had contacted the auction house about the work, but no formal complaint has been asserted, and the sale was going ahead as planned. Lesh is now planning to file a legal case in a US court over Preisinger’s claims.