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Klimt Portrait May Fetch $26.1 Million for Nazi Victim’s Heirs

The unfinished Gustav Klimt painting "Frauenbildnis (Portrait of Ria Munk III)." The painting sold for 18.8 million pounds. It was expected to fetch between 14 million pounds and 18 million pounds at Christie's International Ltd.'s June 23 sale of Impressionist and Modern art in London. Executed between 1917 and 1918, the painting is a posthumous study of Ria Munk, the daughter of a Viennese industrialist, who committed suicide in 1911. Source: Christie's Images Ltd. 2010 via Bloomberg

May 28 (Bloomberg) -- One of Gustav Klimt’s last portraits is expected to fetch as much as 18 million pounds ($26.1 million) at an auction in London next month after being returned to its owners by an Austrian museum.

“Frauenbildnis (Portrait of Ria Munk III),” is included in a June 23 sale of Impressionist and modern art by Christie’s International, the auction house said in an e-mailed statement.

The work was one of three commissioned by Aranka Munk, the wife of a Viennese industrialist, after the death of her daughter Ria in 1911. Ria committed suicide at the age of 24 because of an unhappy love affair.

The portrait, which has a low estimate of 14 million pounds, joins a sale that also includes a “Blue Period” Pablo Picasso painting of an absinthe drinker, valued at as much as 40 million pounds. A 1932 Picasso painting of his young mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, sold for a record $106.5 million at Christie’s in New York on May 4.

“Supply happens when there’s great demand,” Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s London-based head of Impressionist art, said in an interview. “The market is coalescing round these great works. It’s global now. Buyers from China, Russia and the Middle East were very active in New York.”

The 7-foot-high (2.1 meter) canvas shows the dark-haired, rosy-cheeked Ria with her body in profile, her face turned toward the viewer, standing surrounded by abstract swirls of color. It was left incomplete in Klimt’s studio when the artist died in 1918.

‘Slipping Away’

“The face is very finished, while the dress and other parts aren’t,” Bertazzoni said. “This is a portrait of a dead person and it almost looks as if she’s slipping away.”

The painting was seized from the Munk family by the National Socialists during World War II and subsequently passed into the collection of the Neue Galerie der Stadt in Linz, Austria, now known as the Lentos Museum.

In June 2009, Linz city council voted to return the Klimt to the Munk heirs after new evidence indicated that the portrait was looted by the Nazis from Munk’s lakeside villa in Bad Aussee.

The portrait was one of dozens of Klimt paintings owned by the extended family: Aranka Munk’s sister Serena Lederer owned the largest private collection of Klimt’s works, most of which were destroyed by the Nazis in the final days of World War II.

Aranka spent her last summer in the villa in 1938. She was forced to sell part of the property to neighbors in 1941, according to art researcher Sophie Lillie. The Gestapo seized her remaining property in 1942.

After losing her Vienna apartment, Munk and a younger daughter were herded into accommodation specifically for Jews. The mother was deported to Lodz in Poland in October 1941 and died weeks later. Her daughter was sent to the death camp at Chelmno, where she was murdered in September 1942.

The heirs, descendants of Munk’s sisters who have declined to be identified by name, are scattered around the world -- in Vienna, Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and Belgium.

(Scott Reyburn and Catherine Hickley write for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are their own.)

To contact the writers on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at sreyburn@hotmail.com; Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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