Photography: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images
A somber self-portrait by 20th-century expressionist Max Beckmann painted during his Dutch exile from the Nazis is expected to break the record for an insured auction price in Germany when it goes to auction in Berlin next week.
Art lovers flocked first to New York and then to Berlin to preview the painting, which offered a rare opportunity to see a masterpiece that has always been in private hands.
It is unlikely to be bought by a museum at the December 1st auction due to its astronomical price, but could go to another individual collector instead, meaning it may not be possible to see it again.
Selbstbildnis gelb-pink (Yellow-Pink Self-Portrait), painted between 1943 and 1944, is valued at between 20 and 30 million euros, the highest presale price tag put on a work of art in Germany, in what market experts suggest it could herald a new prestigious era for German art auctions.
The Villa Grisebach auction house has for years been in the shadow of its better known New York and London competitors such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Grisebach director Micaela Kapitzky said she welcomed the long-awaited attention that the sale—the result, she said, of years of trust with the painting’s owner—was now bringing to the art market. german art.
“It’s a great sign of confidence in the German market, and this marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors who will never come back,” he said. Having had the privilege, he said, of having the painting in his office before it went on display, he said: “Anyone lucky enough to own it will recognize what a pleasing presence it is. Despite the difficult circumstances in which it was created, the figure exudes incredible strength and warmth. It’s always there, aided by its larger-than-life size, and won’t let you go.
Beckmann left Germany for Amsterdam in 1937, the 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, known as Quappi, would never return, 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, especially his self-portraits, became a key to his survival, or as the art critic Eugen Blume put it, “emblematic expressions of the spiritual crisis he endured”. The decade spent in the Dutch city becomes 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,” according to Blume. Beckmann narrowly avoided being recalled himself due to heart disease, but lived in constant fear that he might be arrested or his paintings confiscated. “Retreating to his atelier … became a self-imposed obligation that protected him from meltdown,” Blume said.
The artist wrote in his diary: “Silent death and conflagration all around me and yet I still live.”
According to Kapitzky, Beckmann “gave Quappi many of his self-portraits, then variously took them away to give to friends or 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.”
Art historians are struck by Beckmann’s unusual use of bright colors in the work, especially the yellow fabric and bright fur trim of what could be a dressing gown, or a nod to his portraits of what he called the his figure as an “artist king”, who expresses sovereignty over himself, at a time when he often felt trapped.
This image would be increasingly overshadowed by his refugee status, with Beckmann describing the figure he embodied as “searching for his homeland, but having lost his home along the way”.
The work is being sold by the family of a commercial lawyer from Bremen who had lived in Switzerland until his death in 2006, who had bought it from the Beckmann family. The self-portrait was considered the most valuable item in his art collection, which included other graphics by Beckmann and Pablo Picasso, some of which have already been auctioned in New York.
Martin Krause, of Grisebach, who will lead the auction, said that the price estimate of up to 30 million euros is realistic. Another Beckmann painting, Bird’s Hell, was sold at Christie’s in London five years ago for £36 million (€41 million at the time), the asking price much lower than the painting currently on sale. His Self-Portrait with Trumpet was auctioned in New York for $22.5 million more than twenty years ago.
It was another painting by Beckmann, The Egyptian, from 1942, which in 2018 fetched what is currently the highest price ever at a German auction: €4.7 million, more than double its estimated 2 million euros.
“If previous Beckmann auctions are anything to go by, and given the rarity of this work, we expect a large number of potential buyers, in the room, online and over the phone, and that the competition will be quite fierce and fervent,” he said. said Krause. “My job will be to stay as calm as possible in the heat of the drama.”