Five rediscovered paintings that sold for millions

Gustav Klimt's hidden masterpiece isn't the only resurfaced artwork to sell for a pretty price in the 21st century

Portrait of Fraulein Lieser by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt sold for $32 million this week. Photo: Wikipedia
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A work by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt that was once believed to be lost has been sold at auction for $32 million.

Entitled Portrait of Fraulein Lieser, the work was painted in 1917 and is believed to be one of Klimt's final works, significantly increasing its cultural and market value.

Plenty of paintings by both old and modern masters have been lost over time due to various reasons. Often after their resurgence in auctions many are sold for undisclosed amounts to private buyers or institutions, making it challenging to understand the full scope, value and stories behind these works of art.

In the 21st century, numerous rediscovered paintings have made headlines due to unusual circumstances that brought them to public attention, their high auction prices, or both.

From a stunning abstract work to a painting by the world’s most famous artist, here are four other rediscovered paintings, alongside Klimt’s portrait, that sold for more than $1 million.

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps the most well-known and controversial of the works rediscovered and auctioned in contemporary times, Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci is the most expensive painting ever sold.

The painting was sold to Saudi Arabia's Prince Badr bin Abdullah at a Christie's auction in New York on November 15, 2017, for $450.3 million.

The work dates to around 1499-1510 and depicts Christ as the Saviour of the World, in Renaissance-era robes, holding a crystal sphere in his left hand while his right hand points upwards.

After passing through many hands during the 16th and 17th century, the painting was sold at an auction at the St Charles Gallery auction house in New Orleans to a group of art dealers for $1,175 in 2005. At the time, the work was attributed to Leonardo’s pupil Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio.

By the time it was sold in 2005, the painting had been damaged and overpainted over many years. However, once the restoration process began, which included removing the overpainting and using infrared photography, and through the consultation of several experts, the work was eventually attributed and sold as a work by Leonardo. However, since the painting was last sold at auction it has been the subject of controversy and debate, with many art historians and critics still questioning its attribution to Leonardo.

The Adoration of the Kings by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

The Dutch Golden Age painter, printmaker and draughtsman, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, simply known as Rembrandt, was a prolific artist most known for his mastery over light and shadow and his incredibly realistic portraits.

Painted in 1628, The Adoration of the Kings is a small work that depicts a biblical scene where three wise men present gifts to the newborn Jesus.

The painting disappeared in the 1950s and resurfacing at a Christie’s sale in Amsterdam in 2021, it was believed to be a work by one of Rembrandt’s contemporaries. Estimated to be valued between $10,500 and $15,800, it was then sold for nearly $1 million as there were already suspicions that the painting may have been by Rembrandt himself.

After its sale and examination, which included infrared and X-ray imaging as well as an inspection by leading Rembrandt scholars, Sotheby’s auction house announced the work to be a real Rembrandt.

The painting was then sold at a Sotheby's auction in London on December 6, 2023, for $13.8 million.

Two Portraits by Rembrandt

Two small portraits by Rembrandt were discovered and subsequently sold for $14 million at Christie's in London in July 2023.

Painted in 1635, the 20-centimetre-tall oval portraits depict an elderly plumber named Jan Willemsz van der Pluym and his wife, Jaapgen Carels. The portraits, though the smallest Rembrandt ever painted, illustrate his understanding of light, facial proportions and expression.

The owners of the portraits were the descendants of an unnamed individual who bought them at auction at Christie's in 1824, where they were listed as Rembrandts.

After their discovery, forensic work was undertaken to verify their authenticity. This included scientific analysis by art experts from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.

Tres Personajes by Rufino Tamayo

Mexican modernist artist Rufino Tamayo painted this brightly coloured abstract work in 1970.

Entitled Tres Personajes (Three Persons), the work is considered to be a significant example of Tamayo's unique and mature style. The artist used a technique where the rough surface texture of the painting was made up of sand and ground marble dust mixed into the paint.

In 1977, the painting was bought by a man from Houston, Texas, as a gift for his wife. But during a house move in 1987, the painting was stolen.

It wasn’t until 2003, in New York, that a woman named Elizabeth Gibson found the painting in the rubbish in the street. Gibson sensed that the painting was of some importance and spent four years attempting to learn about the work.

She eventually discovered the identity of the artist through an episode of The Antique Roadshow and then contacted the former owner.

Upon receiving her stolen artwork, the original owner sold the painting to Sotheby's for $1.04 million in November 2007. Gibson received a $15,000 reward for returning the painting as well as a portion of the auction sale price.

Portrait of Fraulein Lieser by Gustav Klimt

Known for his powerful, evocative portraits, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt used symbolism, Art Nouveau and gold leaf in his work.

As an incredibly influential and popular artist, it’s no surprise that a rediscovered painting by Klimt was recently sold for more than $30 million. Portrait of Fraulein Lieser, long believed to have been lost, is a distinct work by the artist characterised by its sparse composition, vibrant colours and intricate gold-leaf detailing.

Painted in 1917, it is considered to be one of Klimt's last works. Several of his works were confiscated during the Nazi era and the whereabouts of this particular painting between 1925 and the 1960s are still unclear.

The identity of the woman is also a mystery. Experts aren’t sure if she is the daughter of Adolf and Henriette Lieser, clients of Klimt, or one of the daughters of Adolf’s brother, Justus Lieser.

The painting was previously owned by Austrian private citizens who are believed to be the legal successors of Adolf and Henriette Lieser and came to the painting through three successive inheritances.

The reasons for the sale were also not explicitly shared but Portrait of Fraulein Lieser sold for $32 million at the im Kinsky auction house in Vienna on April 24, 2024.

Updated: May 03, 2024, 8:50 AM