Last week, Gustav Klimt’s Lady With a Fan (1917-1918) was sold at Sotheby’s for GBP 85.3 million or USD 108.4 million, becoming the most expensive artwork to have been auctioned publicly in Europe. Going up for sale during Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary evening auction, this record far surpassed its previous holder, Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I (1960) which went under the block for GBP 65 million in 2010.
The Austrian painter is most well known for his masterpiece The Kiss (1907-1908), which features two lovers eternally wrapped in a tender embrace against a radiant gold-leaf backdrop. Lady With a Fan revisits the visual trademarks of Klimt’s oeuvre, contrasting the soft simplicity of the muse’s skin against her richly textured and patterned robe. Like many of his famous works, the painting’s backdrop is painted an opulent gold, though this time with the notable inclusion of ornate lotus buds, leaves, a peacock and a phoenix.
Unlike his earlier masterpiece, however, Klimt was unable to complete Lady With a Fan, leaving it unfinished on his easel after succumbing to influenza in 1918. However, bidders were not dissuaded by the fact that it was technically incomplete, waging a fiery ten-minute bidding war before finally relinquishing the prize to a Hong Kong-based buyer.
What’s notable about the work is how Klimt seemed to have incorporated Chinese iconography and aesthetics into his painting. Helena Newman, the auctioneer of Lady with a Fan, told the New York Times that the painting’s phoenix is a “symbol of eternal life” in Chinese culture. The painting also features elegant lotus blossoms and a Chinese-inspired fan, both staples of Chinese decorative art. It seems that these Asian influences struck a chord with the Hong Kong-based buyer.
Klimt’s work has long been sought after by Asian buyers. In 2015, Klimt’s Water Serpents II (1907) was sold by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev to Rosaline Wong’s HomeArt collection in Hong Kong. A year later, another of Klimt’s high-profile paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) was privately sold by Oprah Winfrey to an anonymous Chinese buyer for $150 million, making it one of the most expensive works of art ever sold privately in Europe. It seems that Eastern demand for Klimt’s paintings is on the rise, and as the Asian art market grows we may see more European paintings being transferred to Asian shores in the future.