The art world is feeling Oprah Winfrey’s Midas touch.

The billionaire entrepreneur sold a Gustav Klimt painting for US$150 million in one of the biggest private art deals of 2016, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction. Winfrey, chief executive officer of the television channel Oprah Winfrey Network, bought “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” for US$87.9 million in 2006 at Christie’s in New York — still an auction record for the Austrian artist. Since then, its value has risen about 71 per cent.

The work is the second major Klimt that changed hands since the art market started contracting. Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev sold “Water Serpents II” (1904-1907) privately for US$170 million in November 2015, according to Sandy Heller, Rybolovlev’s art consultant. Both Klimts went to Asia, where booming wealth has built a growing network of collectors eager to anchor their art holdings with Western masterpieces.

“Klimt is on the list of some people,” said Grace Rong Li, who advises Asian collectors on Western modern and contemporary art. The appeal of the artist, known for his golden-hued “The Kiss,” is both aesthetic and financial, she added.

“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II,” from 1912, depicts a woman in a long, narrow robe and halo-like black hat, standing against an ornate background of mauve and green. The subject, Bloch-Bauer, was the wife of a Jewish industrialist and art patron in Vienna.  

Geffen connection

In 2014, Winfrey lent the painting anonymously to the Museum of Modern Art for five years, according to the person, who asked not to be identified because the information is confidential. The loan was arranged by entertainment mogul David Geffen, who is Winfrey’s friend and a benefactor of the museum, the person said.

Representatives for Winfrey and Geffen declined to comment.

While the Klimt was hanging at MOMA’s fifth-floor galleries last year, Winfrey was approached through Geffen by art dealer Larry Gagosian, who had a potential buyer lined up, said the person. Winfrey was willing to let it go for US$150 million, according to the person.

Before she sold the work to an unidentified Chinese buyer during the summer, Winfrey agreed to temporarily lend it to Neue Galerie for the exhibition “Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900–1918,” which ran from Sept. 22 to Jan. 16.

Gagosian’s representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The canvas was part of a cache looted by the Nazis and famously restituted by the Austrian government to Bloch-Bauer’s heirs in 2006. The legal battle over the works inspired “Woman in Gold,” a 2015 movie starring Helen Mirren. 

Two takes

The trove included two formal portraits of Bloch-Bauer made by Klimt.

The painting Winfrey sold will be featured with its predecessor at Neue Galerie, billionaire Ronald Lauder’s private museum in New York, through July. Lauder paid a reported US$135 million in 2006 for “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” at the time the highest price for any artwork, and the gold-ground 1907 painting became his museum’s crown jewel. The show has brought a reunion, as both portraits spent decades at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.

“Adele Bloch-Bauer is the only subject Klimt is known to have portrayed twice — first in the iconic 1907 ‘golden’ portrait, then in 1912 in a very different, exuberantly coloured work,” said Scott Gutterman, deputy director of Neue Galerie. “Seeing the two works side by side allows the viewer to see how Klimt’s work changed during this key period in his artistic development.”

Bloomberg News