On Tuesday, Philadelphia-based auction house Freeman’s sold Viennese artist Carl Moll’s White Interior (1905) for a record-breaking $4.75 million during its European art and Old Masters sale, which brought in a collective $6.4 million.
The result for the Moll painting marks the highest price achieved for a single lot in the house’s history, surpassing the $3.1 million paid for a Chinese vase in 2011, and Tuesday’s sale is now the biggest auction ever held at Freeman’s. White Interior also bested Moll’s previous record of $385,700, paid for a landscape by the artist at Austrian auction house Dorotheum in 2007.
The record-setting painting, which depicts art critic Berta Zuckerkandl-Szeps in her Döbling apartment in an all-white palette, surfaced on the market after more than a century of being held privately. It came from a German family collection, having passed through inheritance to the California-based heir of the original owners, where it has been since the 1970s, and it is the only figurative Moll painting ever sold at auction.
“Everyone thought it was lost, because it was only known through a black and white photograph from a show in 1905,” said Freeman’s European art and Old Masters specialist Raphaël Chatroux. “But in fact, we believe the work was bought directly by the family of our consignor. We don’t know if it was bought directly from the artist by them, but we think that it is highly possible it was bought right after it was shown in Vienna in 1908, because otherwise the artist would have continued to exhibit it.”
The painting was first exhibited in Berlin in 1905 and later at the Museum Folkwang in Essen the following year. It had last been shown publicly at Vienna’s Kunstschau in 1908, alongside Gustav Klimt’s iconic The Kiss (which is now held by the Belvedere Museum in Vienna).
Moll was one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession movement. With a market concentrated mainly in Europe, he is known for his idyllic domestic scenes. Moll, who supported Nazism, committed suicide in Vienna upon Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Part of White Interior‘s success owes to its subject—another Moll portrait of Zuckerkandl-Szeps is held in a private collection. According to Chatroux, Zuckerkandl-Szeps played a diplomatic role in maintaining artistic ties between French and Austrian artists during World War I. By World War II, the Jewish intellectual fled to Paris, then to the Maghreb (Northwest Africa). “She was very known for her modern and bold views because she used to write in newspapers to defend artists of the avant-garde,” said Chatroux. “She was a big Klimt supporter, especially when he was painting nudes that were considered a bit too realistic and graphic.”
After a protracted bidding period that lasted just under 10 minutes and involved a dozen parties, an American collector won the work. Following the sale, the auction house reported that the anonymous buyer was planning to exhibit the work at New York’s Neue Galerie, which houses the formidable German and Viennese art collection of New York investor Ronald Lauder. The Neue Galerie did not respond to a request for comment.