High Estimates Caused Schiele’s Embarrassing Auction Flops, Experts Say

  • Egon Schiele, Danaë, 1909. Courtesy of The Athenaeum.

    Egon Schiele, Danaë, 1909. Courtesy of The Athenaeum.

In the past two months, two paintings by the Vienna Secessionist artist Egon Schiele, with a combined estimated worth of at least $55 million, have been left out in the cold at auction.

But Schiele experts said the withdrawals do not reflect a troubled market for the quintessentially tragic artist, who died of the Spanish flu at only 28 years old. They attribute these recent disappointments instead to overly bullish estimates and potential provenance concerns.

On May 16th, Sotheby’s pulled its star lot Danaë (1909) from its Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale in New York; its image was still on the press release given to reporters minutes before the sale started, and had been expected to lead the auction with an estimate of $30 million to $40 million. On June 27th, the artist’s 1915 Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen), estimated at £20 million to £30 million, failed to find a buyer at the Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale in London.

Those two incidents do not necessarily speak to the state of the broader Schiele market, which is about 90 percent works on paper, cautioned Jane Kallir of Galerie St. Etienne, a Schiele expert whose Jewish grandfather owned a gallery in Vienna before escaping World War II and introduced both Schiele and Gustav Klimt to American collectors when he moved to New York. Kallir’s grandfather compiled the first of several catalogues raisonnés on Schiele, and she authored the catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s complete works in 1990.

In what Kallir called an “educated guess,” she suggested that the failure of the works to sell was a result of unjustifiably high estimates that the auction houses based off of recent success with Klimt paintings, which Danaë resembles. In March of this year, Klimt’s Bauerngarten (Blumengarten) (1907) found a buyer for more than £48 million at the Sotheby’s London Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale.

“Sotheby’s had been doing very well with Klimt paintings in 2016, and it’s no secret that the Chinese have discovered Klimt and are a huge force in the market,” Kallir said.

Klimt paintings have also been fetching jaw-dropping prices in private sales. In 2016, Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was sold in a private sale to a Chinese collector for $150 million, and in 2015, the artist’s Water Serpents II (1904–07) was acquired, also in a private sale, by an anonymous Asian collector for $170 million.

Those sums may have encouraged Sotheby’s to nudge the estimate for Danaë higher than what Kallir said is a more realistic estimate of $10 million to $15 million. Schiele’s current auction record was set in 2011, when his 1914 Häuser Mit Bunter Wäsche (Vorstadt II) was sold for £24.7 million at Sotheby’s London.

“This is not really not an important Schiele,” she said of Danaë. “But this Schiele looks more like a Klimt than a Schiele, and I think Sotheby’s estimated it with the higher-priced Klimt market in mind.”

Danaë was on view in Hong Kong for two days before its presentation in New York. Sotheby’s did not return calls seeking comment on what other works were also shown in Hong Kong, so it is unclear if it was one of multiple works shown to prospective Asian buyers.

Parisian dealer Christian Ogier of Galerie Sepia also said the painting was not exceptional enough to justify the near record-setting estimate.

“The comment from Sotheby’s was that Danaë ‘makes a bold and compelling statement,’” he said, referring to a statement from Simon Shaw, co-head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art department, in the auction house’s press materials. “It’s a very good painting, but it’s not compelling and it’s not bold.”

He also noted that Sotheby’s was unable to get a third-party guarantee on the work, a sign that dealers weren’t as “compelled” by its bold statement as the auction house had hoped.

The reasons why Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) failed to find a buyer are a bit murkier. In 2006, it notched the second highest price for a work by Schiele when it sold for $22.4 million at Christie’s in New York. So what happened this time around?

According to the Christie’s provenance report for the piece, sometime between 1918 and 1959 it was acquired by Bruno Grimschitz, the Nazi director of the Austrian State Gallery, now the Belvedere Museum. The original owners were Hugo Koller and Broncia Koller-Pinell; Koller-Pinell was a Jewish painter closely involved with the Vienna Secessionists, who also hosted salons attended by both Schiele and Klimt. Koller was Catholic and the couple raised their children Christian, though his wife never converted. The couple passed the painting to their children, and it was from the younger generation of Kollers that Grimschitz—who also oversaw the change of the name of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer to Woman in Gold, as a means of hiding the subject’s Jewish identity—acquired the work.

A representative from Christie’s said via email there are no known provenance issues with the painting, citing the successful 2006 sale in which Grimschitz’s ownership was also noted. The lot “would not have been offered for sale unless it had been cleared in accordance with our strict guidelines for restitution-era due diligence research,” the representative said.

There is no evidence the painting was looted, but a growing awareness of restitution-era issues could be part of the reason this work sold in 2006, but was unsuccessful this time around. The 2015 film Woman in Gold told the story of Maria Altmann, who, in 2006, won a years-long fight to reclaim Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which had been stolen from her family by Nazis.

“In this day and age, if you are going to sell a painting priced in the eight figures that has a Nazi in the provenance, you better have a good explanation for it,” said Kallir.

According to the catalogue raisonné, Schiele created 334 paintings in his short life, of which 147 were early student works. Regardless of recent auction results, those who deal in Schiele works maintain a confidence in his overall market, especially with so few remaining in private hands.


—Sara Roffino