A brooding self-portrait of 20th-century expressionist Max Beckmann, painted during his Dutch exile from the Nazis, is expected to break the record for a price won at auction in Germany when it goes under the hammer in Berlin next week.
Art lovers flocked first to New York and then to Berlin to see the painting in previews, offering a rare opportunity to view a masterpiece that has always been in private hands.
Due to its astronomical price, it is unlikely to be bought by a museum at auction on December 1, but will instead go to another individual collector, meaning it may not be possible to see it again.
Self-portrait yellow-pink (Self-Portrait Yellow-Pink), painted between 1943 and 1944, is valued at between €20 million and €30 million, the highest presale label on an artwork in Germany, in what market experts say is a prestigious new era for German art can usher in auctions.
Auction house Villa Grisebach has been in the shadow of the more famous competitors from New York and London for years, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Grisebach’s director, Micaela Kapitzky, said she was pleased with the much-anticipated attention the sale—the result, she said, of years of building trust with the painting’s owner—now brought to the German art market.
“It’s a great sign of confidence in the German market, and this is a unique opportunity for collectors who won’t be back,” she said. She said she had the privilege of having the painting in her own office before it went on display, saying: “Whoever is lucky enough to own this will recognize what a pleasant presence it is. Despite the difficult circumstances in which it came to has come into existence, the statue radiates an incredible power and warmth, it is ever present, aided by its larger than life size, and does not let you go.”
Beckmann left Germany for Amsterdam in 1937, a 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 and emigrated to the US ten years later, where he died in 1950.
When Amsterdam was invaded by German troops in 1940, it was no longer a safe haven and he retreated to his studio in an old tobacco warehouse on the canal, where his painting, especially his self-portraits, became a key to his survival, or if the art critic Eugen Blume said, “emblematic expressions of the spiritual crisis he was going through”. The decade spent in the Dutch city became his most productive period.
“Beckmann had to watch powerlessly as the German occupiers interned Dutch Jews, including personal friends of his, in Westerbork concentration camp,” said Blume. Beckmann himself narrowly avoided a call-up due to a heart condition, but he lived in constant fear that he would be arrested or that his paintings would be confiscated. “Retreating to his studio … became a self-imposed obligation that protected him from collapsing,” Blume said.
The artist wrote in his diary: “Silent death and conflagration all around me and yet I am still alive.”
According to Kapitzky, Beckmann ‘donated some of his self-portraits to Quappi and then took them away from her in various ways to give to friends or sell. But she clung to it and never let go until her death in 1986.
“Very likely this is because of what it stood for,” she added. “He’s painted himself as a young man and it’s full of vitality and an internal strength and resistance, his will to overcome this difficult time, and there’s also his calm, enigmatic smile.”
Art historians are impressed by Beckmann’s unusual use of bright colors in the work, especially the yellow fabric and vibrant fur trim of what may be a dressing gown, or a nod to his depictions of what he called his “artist king” figure, demonstrating sovereignty expresses. about himself, at a time when he often felt trapped.
This image would increasingly be overshadowed by his refugee status, with Beckmann describing the figure he embodied as “looking for his homeland, but losing his home along the way”.
The work is being sold by the family of a commercial lawyer from Bremen who lived in Switzerland until his death in 2006 and had acquired it from the Beckmann family. The self-portrait was considered the most prized item in his art collection, which includes other images by Beckmanns and Pablo Picasso, some of which have already been auctioned in New York.
Grisebach’s Martin Krause, who will run the auction, said the price estimate of up to €30 million was realistic. Another Beckmann painting, Bird’s Hell, sold five years ago at Christie’s in London for £36 million (€41 million at the time), the asking price being much less than the painting currently for sale. His Trumpet Self-Portrait sold at auction in New York more than twenty years ago for $22.5 million.
It was another Beckmann painting, The Egyptian, from 1942, which in 2018 reached the highest price ever raised at a German auction: €4.7 million, more than double the estimated €2 million.
“Based on previous Beckmann auctions, and due to the rarity of this work, we expect a large number of potential buyers, in the room, online and on the phone, and that competition will be quite fierce and fierce. Krause said. “My job will be to remain as calm as possible in the heat of battle.”