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At Christie’s $190.3 M. Imp-Mod Sale in London, Record-Breaking $45.8 M. Beckmann Goes to Gagosian

Max Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell (1938).


The second week of sales in London kicked off tonight with a £149.4 million ($191.7 million) Impressionist and modern art evening sale, with the house ably finding buyers for all but two of the 32 lots on offer, en route to a sell-through rate of 94 percent. That’s a marked improvement over the equivalent sale last year, when a slew of withdrawn lots led to a calamitous auction that totaled just £25.6 million ($32.8 million), the lowest haul for the event since the peak of the financial crisis.

Tonight’s result also beat out that of last week’s Impressionist and modern sale at Sotheby’s, which pulled in £127.9 million (about $161.3 million). This is the sole head-to-head battle between the arch rivals during the June sales in London, as this year Christie’s decided to forgo its post-Basel contemporary sale amid layoffs and the closure of its South Kensington salesroom.

The sale was led by Max Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell, a 1938 work that depicts the horrors of the Nazi regime and has been called a German Expressionist Guernica. Since 1983, it has been owned by the collector Richard Feigen, who kept it on a wall of his Upper East Side apartment when it was not on loan to museums. It was purchased in the room by Larry Gagosian, according to Antiques Trade Gazette, who beat out two other Christie’s specialists speaking with clients by phone, seizing the work at a £32 million hammer while talking on his cell. With fees, that comes to £36 million ($45.8 million), marking both a record for Beckmann and for any work of German Expressionism.

Other highlights of the sale included Picasso’s Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse), 1934, which went for £39.4 million ($44.9 million) and van Gogh’s Le moissonneur (d’après Millet) which went for £24.2 million ($38.8 million), well over its high estimate of £16.5 million ($21.16 million) after a flurry of bidding in the room and on the telephones. 

Those big lots offset two relative disappointments. Egon Schiele’s Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) (recto); Mönch I (fragment; verso), 1915, advertised as one of the sale’s star lots, stalled at £19.5 million and failed to find a bidder, resulting in a stinging pass. And while Monet’s Saule pleureur (1918–19) did sell, it went for £8.9 million ($11.3 million, well below the low estimate of €15 million ($19.1 million).

The London sales continue tomorrow with the postwar and contemporary auction at Sotheby’s.

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