Setting a new record for the most expensive work of art ever auctioned in Europe—Gustav Klimt’s final portrait Dame mit Fächer (Lady With a Fan), for a premium-inclusive £85.3 million ($108.4 million)—Sotheby’s hit its high target in a mini-marathon of sales held in London this afternoon and early evening.
The artwork, which the auction house touted as the Austrian artist’s final masterpiece—it was still on the easel in Klimt’s studio when he died in 1918—carried an estimate “in excess of £65 million.” That already lined it up to break the previous European auction record, which had held since 2010, when Alberto Giacometti‘s sculpture Walking Man sold at Sotheby’s London as well, for £65 million ($104.3 million).
The top price for the continent’s most expensive painting, meanwhile, had stood for 15 years, with the £40.9 million ($80.4 million) sale of Le basin aux nymphéas by Claude Monet at Christie’s London. That figure was nearly matched last March with L’empire des lumières by René Magritte, which fetched £59.4 million ($79.8 million) at Sotheby’s London.
It’s also worth noting that the work was backed by an outside bid, or third-party guarantee, so it would have sold no matter what. However the strength of the final price—the work was hammered down for £74 million—was no doubt good news for the auction house, the seller, and anyone else heavily invested in the Austrian painter’s market.
The last time Dame mit Fächer hit the block, back in 1994, it had also set a new benchmark for the artist, with a $11.6 million sale at Sotheby’s New York. It is now also the most expensive Klimt ever sold at auction, having surpassed the recently set auction record $104.6 million price achieved for Birch Forest at Christie’s last fall, when it was sold from the collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The bidding activity in the room reflected the intense demand from Asia as it ultimately came down to a ten-minute bidding war between Sotheby’s deputy chairman of Asia Jen Hua, who was bidding for a client she was on the phone with, and Patti Wong, longtime former Sotheby’s chairman and head of Asia, who left at the end of 2022 to run her own advisory business.
Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and worldwide head of Impressionist and Modern art, opened the bidding at £58 million and moved it up alternately in £500,000 and £1 million pound increments. Wong jumped into the action as the price surpassed £60 million and competed tenaciously with Hua until Wong’s client emerged victorious.
Following the sale, Wong said her firm “is honoured to secure this stunning masterpiece by Klimt for our client in Hong Kong. This rare beauty, with distinguished provenance, now going into a prestigious collection, was painted at the artist’s prime and shows his forward thinking and experimental technique.”
In all, the 59-lot (one work was withdrawn) Modern and Contemporary evening auction realized £190.3 million ($241.9 million), compared with a presale estimate of £162.1 million to £206.9 million ($206.7 million to $263.8 million). Of the 59 lots on offer, 22 lots or 40 percent of the sale, was backed by irrevocable third-party bids. One of the lots had a direct guarantee from Sotheby’s.
Fifty of the lots, or 85 percent, found buyers. After the Klimt, which was the only eight-figure artwork on offer, the second-highest price achieved today was the £9.6 million ($12.2 million) paid for Lucian Freud’s Night Interior (1968-69) which went to a buyer in the room. Given that the £8.1 million hammer price was so close to the low estimate of £8 million, it’s possible the Freud went to the third-party backer who guaranteed it.
It was closely followed in price by a classic Cy Twombly chalkboard painting, Untitled (1970) also backed by a third party guarantee, that sold for £8.96 million ($11.4 million). The estimate was £8 million to £12 million.
Two more third-party backed works achieved the identical price of £5.6 million ($7 million): Alberto Giacometti’s portrait bust of his brother, Buste de Diego au col roulé (1951) and Frank Auerbach’s Mornington Crescent (1969).
The sale included three other Auerbach works that all performed well, taking in £11.2 million ($14.2 million) compared with a high cumulative estimate of £9 million ($11.5 million).
The Modern and contemporary art sale launched with a dedicated section titled “Face to Face” with the special offering of portraiture linked to the National Portrait Gallery reopening. The 15 works in the special section were led by the aforementioned Freud painting depicting a favorite subject of the artist, Penelope Cuthbertson.
Other highlights included Jenny Saville’s Shadow Study (2006–07) which sold for £3.4 million ($4.4 million). The work previously came to auction in 2014, when it realized £506,500 ($868,335), meaning it made more than five times as much in its more recent outing. A rare self-portrait by Surrealist painter Leonore Fini inspired by the Old Masters, Autoportrait au turban rouge (1938-41), attracted six bidders before selling for £711,200 ($904,113).
Today’s sale series also featured many ultra-contemporary offerings under the label “The Now.” The slim 17-lot auction became even slimmer when it was revealed that three works had been withdrawn, all paintings by buzzy female artists—Louise Bonnet, Emily Mae Smith, and Hilary Pecis—suggesting there might be some market jitters about price speculation for these names.
The top lot in the contemporary sale was one of two backed by third-party guarantees: Mark Bradford’s large painting Stand Down Soldier (2018), which sold for a mid-estimate £3 million ($3.9 million). The other lot with an outside backer was an Untitled 2019 painting by sought-after market phenomenon Adrian Ghenie, which sold for £1.2 million ($1.5 million).
In total, “The Now” sale realized £8.7 million ($11 million) compared with a revised lower resale estimate of £6.1 million to £8.7 million to reflect the withdrawn lots. The sell-through rate was 93 percent, with all but one lot finding a buyer.
Records were set for a few artists, some of which, not surprisingly, have short auction track records given the ultra-contemporary material on offer, including Arthur Jafa, and Michel Majerus.
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