Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP
A rare and stunning self-portrait by 20th-century German Expressionist Max Beckmann has sold in Berlin for €20m (£17m), breaking the record for an artwork sold at auction in Germany.
The surprising Selbstbildnis gelb-pink (Yellow-Pink Self-Portrait) was painted by Beckmann during his wartime exile in Amsterdam after fleeing Nazi Germany. The identity of her new owner was not immediately available. With commissions and other charges, the cost to the buyer was 23.2 million euros.
The sale at the Villa Grisebach auction house attracted buyers from all over the world. Auction house director Micaela Kapitzky said it was a unique opportunity to buy a Beckmann self-portrait. “A work of his of this kind and quality will never be presented again. This is very special,” she said.
The auctioneer, Markus Krause, told prospective buyers “that chance will never come again”.
Beckmann completed the work in 1944, when he was 50, and in it he portrays his much younger self. The painting remained in the possession of his wife Mathilde, known as Quappi, until her death, and was last put up for sale in 1996.
Related: Max Beckmann’s self-portrait set to fetch record price at German auction
Prior to the sale, thousands flocked to see the work, first in New York, where it was on view in November, and later in the 19th-century Villa Grisebach in central West Berlin.
The sale is a coup for Villa Grisebach, founded in 1986 when Berlin was still divided by the wall. At the time, trading in high-end German art took place primarily in Munich and Cologne, or at auction houses in London and New York.
The painting was lot 19 among 56 other works, from Otto Dix and Egon Schiele to Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It broke the record for a work auctioned in Germany by more than 10 million euros. Last year the Nagel auction house in Stuttgart sold a bronze sculpture donated by a concubine to the Chinese emperor Chenghua in 1473 for 9.5 million euros. Beckmann painted numerous self-portraits, which are highly sought after by collectors but rarely available for sale, but this work is considered unusual due to the artist’s rare choice of bright colours. The yellow fabric and fur trim of what could be a dressing gown, or a nod to what Beckmann called his “artist king” figure, express sovereignty over himself at a time when he often felt trapped and bereft. control over his life.
This attempt at grandeur became increasingly obscured the longer he was a refugee, with Beckmann describing the figure he embodied as “searching for his homeland, but having lost his home along the way”.
Beckmann left Germany for Amsterdam in 1937, one day after hearing Adolf Hitler deliver a speech condemning “degenerate” artists. Authorities subsequently confiscated 500 of his works from museums. Beckmann and his wife, Mathilde, never returned to Germany, emigrating to the United States a decade later, where he died in 1950.
When Amsterdam was overrun by German troops in 1940, it was no longer a safe haven, and he retreated to his studio in an old canalside tobacco warehouse, where his painting, particularly his self-portraits, became key to his survival or, as the art critic Eugen Blume said, “emblematic expressions of the spiritual crisis he went through”. The decade Beckmann spent in Amsterdam became his most prolific period.
“Beckmann had to watch helplessly as the German occupiers interned Dutch Jews, including his personal friends, in the Westerbork concentration camp,” Blume said. Beckmann narrowly avoided being recalled himself due to heart disease, but lived in constant fear of arrest or having his paintings confiscated. “Retreating to his atelier … became a self-imposed obligation that protected him from meltdown,” Blume said.
Beckmann wrote in his diary: “Silent death and conflagration all around me and yet I still live.”
According to Kapitzky, Beckmann “gave Quappi several of his self-portraits, then variously took them away to give to friends or to sell. But to this she held on and never let go until her death in 1986.
“Most likely this is due to what it represented,” he added. “He painted himself as a young man and is full of vitality, inner strength and defiance, his will to get through this difficult time, and there is also his calm and enigmatic smile.”