For nearly a century, art historians thought Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Fräulein Lieser had been lost to history.
Now, the missing artwork has reappeared in a private collection—and when it goes to auction this spring, experts estimate it could fetch as much as €50 million ($54.4 million).
Klimt began the portrait in May 1917. The subject wears a seafoam green dress under a blue coat, which features colorful flowers cascading down the front. Her cheeks are flushed, and her hair is curled. While her face is painted “with precise strokes in a sensitive, naturalistic manner,” other areas of the piece “reflect the free, open brushwork of his late style,” says the Austrian auction house im Kinsky in a statement.
Portrait of Fräulein Lieser was one of Klimt’s final works. When the artist died in Vienna in February 1918, the nearly complete painting was sitting in his studio, with only small sections still unfinished.
The piece was last documented in a black-and-white photograph taken in 1925. After that, it vanished from the records.
Art historians didn’t know what became of it until its current owners, who are private citizens in Austria, contacted the auction house in 2022, reports the Washington Post’s Victoria Bisset. For the first time in nearly 100 years, art lovers can finally see the painting’s vibrant colors.
“The rediscovery of this portrait, one of the most beautiful of Klimt’s last creative period, is a sensation,” says the auction house. “Klimt epitomizes fin de siècle Austrian Modernism more than any other artist. His work, particularly his portraits of successful women from the upper-middle class at the turn of the century, enjoy the highest recognition worldwide.”
The subject of Portrait of Fräulein Lieser is likely a daughter of a wealthy Jewish family that mingled in high Viennese society—though which daughter is still up for debate.
Perhaps she is Margarethe Constance Lieser. Records suggest that Margarethe’s father, the industrial magnate Adolf Lieser, commissioned Klimt to paint her portrait when she was 18.
Other evidence suggests she could be one of Adolf’s nieces. Research from the auction house shows his sister-in-law, Lilly Lieser, also commissioned Klimt to paint one of her two daughters, Annie and Helene.
In any case, the subject of the artwork reportedly visited the artist’s studio in Hietzing nine times in the spring of 1917. The artist created over 25 preliminary studies of the young woman. The Lieser family received the piece after Klimt’s death, and it was likely part of an exhibition when the photograph was taken in 1925.
“The exact fate of the painting after 1925 is unclear,” according to the auction house. “What is known is that it was acquired by a legal predecessor of the consignor in the 1960s and went to the current owner through three successive inheritances.”
Without any information on the portrait’s whereabouts between 1925 and 1960, one question looms large: What happened to it during World War II? Is there a chance that the Nazis seized the painting from the Lieser family?
“We have checked all archives and have found no evidence that the painting has ever been exported out of Austria, confiscated or looted,” Claudia Mörth-Gasser, head of modern art at im Kinsky, tells CNN’s Lianne Kolirin.
On the other hand, she adds, “We have no proof that the painting has not ever been looted in the time gap between 1938 and 1945.”
Due to these unknowns, the current owners and the descendants of the Lieser family have reached a private agreement regarding the sale. The auction house says this decision was made “in accordance with the Washington Principles of 1998,” an international agreement facilitating the return of Nazi-looted art.
Born in 1862, Klimt is known as a leading figure in the Vienna Secession movement, which took root around the turn of the century and marked a rejection of establishment ideas about art’s purpose. These days, his art is highly sought after: Klimt’s Lady With a Fan fetched roughly $108 million last year, setting the record for the most expensive work sold at auction in Europe.
Ahead of the auction on April 24, the artwork will embark on an international tour, making stops in Switzerland, Germany, Britain, and Hong Kong.