Some works of art are so magnetic that their prices are destined to skyrocket higher and higher with each passing age. Others seem to be dragged down by bad bidding karma. And then there are those who remain forever shrouded in mystery.

Such is the fate of Gustav Klimt Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a fan), a portrait of a discreetly smiling Viennese beauty, both sacred and profane, sold for $108.4 million at Sotheby’s last month. Klimt’s last finished painting, he set a new auction record for the Austrian enfant terrible– just like it did the last time it went on sale in 1994. And, just like the last time, no one knows where it went.

Leave it to an auction house to do something clandestine for all to see.

“Sometimes works just disappear,” said David Nash, whose 35-year tenure at Sotheby’s saw him rise from doorman to head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department before stepping down in 1996. I never found out who bought Klimt. I never found out who bought Picasso Pipe Boy.”

This lack of clarity angered Nash because he was responsible for bringing to Sotheby’s the estate of Wendell Cherry, the Louisville-based founder of hospital giant Humana, which included the Klimts. The winning bid was placed through a Sotheby’s customer service representative. After that, Nash found, the trail went cold.

Today, nearly 30 years later, lady with a fan was back on the market, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Its provenance indicates that the current owner’s family acquired the canvas in 1994. Perhaps a generational change in custody resulted in its first public exhibition in Vienna in 100 years, at the Belvedere Museum in 2021.

Will be lady with a fan disappear again for decades? Your guess is as good as mine. The auction house is mom.

But there is a story worth telling, if only because Klimt is the brightest spot at a rather uncertain time for the art market. On the one hand, we are witnessing a clear contraction. Christie’s has just reported a 23% drop of its sales in the first six months of 2023 compared to a year ago, and its main rivals are on a similar trajectory.

Helena Newman, auctioneer Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) by Gustav Klimt, which breaks all records.  Photo by Haydon Perrior, image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Helena Newman, auctioneer of Gustav Klimt’s record Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a fan) by Gustav Klimt. Photo by Haydon Perrior, image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

On the other hand, there remains an invigorating desire at the top of the market to compete for rare and exquisite works of art, as evidenced by the Klimt.

“It’s very targeted,” said Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Group, whose clients were bidders and buyers in New York in May. “The best customers don’t lack interest. Intermediate customers reflect on their use of money. The challenge is interest rates.

Klimt’s painting, with its indisputable East Asian pattern, is also the clearest indication since the pandemic that Asian buyers are back at the top of the market. Four bidders went to collect the work, which was on an easel in Klimt’s studio at the time of his death. Three of them represented Asian customers. The winner was Patti Wong, a former Sotheby’s rainmaker, who later said she purchased the painting on behalf of an anonymous Hong Kong client. (This was a third major Klimt painting to be auctioned since November heading to Asia.)

Within minutes, the guessing game began. Let’s review what we know.

At Sotheby’s, Wong was known to work closely with many high-profile and mega-wealthy Asian clients, including Taiwanese financier Pierre Chen and Hong Kong-based collector Joseph Lau. Sitting in London’s Bond Street auction room, Wong showed no hesitation in bidding. It looked like she would go to the moon for the Klimt if she had to.

Gustav Klimt holding one of his cats in his arms, in front of his studio in Vienna, 8th district, Josefstaedter Strasse (circa 1912).  Photo: Moriz Naehr.  Courtesy of Imagno/Getty Images.

Gustav Klimt holding one of his cats in his arms, in front of his studio in Vienna, 8th district, Josefstaedter Strasse (circa 1912). Photo: Moriz Naehr. Courtesy of Imagno/Getty Images.

Maybe it was a strategic decision. Wong recently left Sotheby’s after three decades to launch Patti Wong and associates, soon associating with Hoffman’s Fine Art Group. She had a reason to relent, and she did. After the sale, Wong said he purchased the painting for a client in Hong Kong.

It can mean anything, of course: from someone with a business to someone with a foot on the ground on the island.

Some people have used this loophole to start pointing fingers at Chen, a Taiwanese billionaire, whose collection is now on display at the Tate Modern in London. Among the works loaned to the program “Capturing the Moment” by the Chen’s Yageo Foundation figure 1972 by David Hockney Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which fetched $90.3 million at Christie’s in 2018. It was the record price for a work by a living artist at auction at the time. Another painting, “The Sailor” by Pablo Picasso, was famous flat by a rod before its auction at Christie’s in 2018, when it was estimated at $70 million. But Chen is based in Taiwan, not Hong Kong, so he probably wasn’t the Klimt buyer.

Meanwhile Lau, who is a fugitive in Hong Kong, is no stranger to paying high prices for Western masterpieces, but it has yet to cross the $100 million mark. In 2006 he bought Warhol’s Mao portrait for $17.4 million, the price that seems like a steal now. In 2015, he paid $41.7 million for Roy Lichtenstein The ring (engagement) and $67.4 million for Pablo Picasso Bust of a woman. But recently, Lau has recently been a seller, parting ways with his wine, chinese artwork, and a treasure of Hermes bags to compensate for its losses on the stock market.

Soon, another name surfaced as a potential buyer: Rosaline Wang, who has established himself as one of the best players in the region. It’s easy to see why she might be a candidate. Although she’s something of a behind-the-scenes figure, Wong, who is in her early 50s, has been an “aggressive” buyer for the past decade. And she’s connected to the most powerful buyers, having been romantically linked to Lau and, in recent years, the billionaire Henry Cheng.

Gustave Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912). ©2014MoMA. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

What is known is that Wong’s interests range from Chinese artwork to 20th century trophy paintings – and she’s one of a small group of people around the world who can easily spend 100 million dollars for a work of art, according to people who have dealt with it. Once an Asian art auction failed when Wong was unable to participate due to a death in the Cheng family.

“She is a force,” said a senior executive at a major auction house, a sentiment shared by others. But a force for whom? People I spoke to couldn’t say for sure if she’s buying for herself or if she’s a public front for investors who prefer to keep their art deals out of public view.

“No one can answer that question,” the executive said. “She buys. She pays.”

Wong can be useful for those who want to be low-key about their lavish lifestyle, another auction manager said. “They need people like Rosaline Wong to help them move things around without being reported,” the person said. “Some billionaires don’t like to be seen buying things at a big auction house. Then they can structure the transfer of ownership however they want, sometimes creatively.”

Since the pandemic, however, Wong has taken on a more public profile, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. She collaborated with Christie’s in the exhibitions of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Françoise Gilot and Adrian Ghenie/Francis Bacon in double head. Each show coincided with a major auction by featured artists.

More recently, Rosaline Wong appeared as a partner in an art investment fund established by Zheng He Capital. THE Promotional material for the fund, ZH Bella Romaine Fund LP, describe Wong as one of the top art collectors in the world and someone who has been involved in art deals worth $4 billion. The fund lists Larry Gagosian as an adviser.

While the whispers on lady with a fan are just that, it wouldn’t be the first time Wong has been linked to a Klimt great. In November, the South China Morning Post reported that Wong’s company HomeArt was listed as a lender of not one but two works by Klimt for “Golden Boy–Gustav Klimt,” an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

by Gustav Klimt Aquatic Serpents II (Les Amies), (1904-1907). Private collection. Photo © Akg-Images/Erich Lessing.

One of them, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), sold for $87.9 million at Christie’s in 2006 as part of the group of paintings returned to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. The work was later acquired by Oprah Winfrey, who sold it 10 years later for $150 million in a deal brokered by Gagosian.

The second Klimt is Wasserschlangen II (1904-1907), which belonged to the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. He sold it to an anonymous Asian buyer for $170 million in 2015. Earlier this year the painting was included in an exhibition at the Belvedere Museum.

I announced the news on both transactions in 2017, but I was unable to confirm the names of the buyers at the time, and I was unaware that both paintings were acquired by the same person or entity. Curiously, both were bought during an art market contraction, like today.

Could Rosaline Wong’s be behind the latest Klimt sale at Sotheby’s? Councilwoman Patti Wong declined to comment.

Sources tell me that Rosaline Wong just so happens to be starting a co-ownership fund that specializes in museum-quality works for more investors. Klimt’s Viennese beauty, her timidly outstretched fan, is perhaps the kind of girl to seduce them.

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