LONDON—Prices for modern Czech art reached new highs in the landmark sale of the Norman and Suzanne Hascoe collection at Sotheby’s London on June 13. Formed after the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989 by the Connecticut-based couple, the Hascoes bought from both Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York and from galleries and auctions in Prague. The 199 lots on offer were estimated to fetch £4.2 million/6.2 million but realized £11.1 million ($18 million). Thirteen artists’ records were broken as 183, or 92 percent, of the lots offered were sold.
Frantisek Kupka was among the earliest abstract painters in Paris, and his Movement, 1913–19, bought at Christie’s New York in November 1999 for $365,000 (£203,000), was the top lot, selling for a record £1.5 million ($2.4 million), on an estimate of £500,000/700,000. The same telephone buyer, a private collector, paid a record £565,250 ($918,000), against an estimate of £150,000/200,000, for the double-sided canvas Sailor and Phantomas, 1917–20, by Josef Capek, who studied briefly in Paris, then returned to Prague in 1911, spreading the influence of Cubism and African tribal art. The Hascoes acquired the painting through friends of the artist, who died at Belsen in 1945.
The second-highest lot was Kupka’s later Le Disque Blanc, 1946, which was bought at Sotheby’s New York in May 1999 for $100,000 (£62,000) and now sold for £691,000 ($1.1 million), against an estimate of £300,000/500,000. The same telephone buyer, another private collector, paid a record £163,250 ($265,118) for Karel Cerny’s In the Bar, 1946 (estimate: £40,000/60,000), and a record £139,250 ($226,142) for Otakar Svec’s futuristic sculpture Sunbeam–Motorcyclist (estimate: £15,000/20,000). Conceived in 1924, this was one of a large number of posthumous castings by a variety of artists, which the Hascoes had bought directly from the National Gallery in Prague, owner of the original plasters or terra-cottas. Perhaps the largest quantity of such casts were by Otto Gutfreund, who was at the forefront, with Picasso, of the development of Cubist sculpture. Gutfreund drowned in 1927, at the age of just thirty-eight, and lifetime casts of his bronzes are virtually unheard-of. Here, his Cubist Head, conceived in 1913–14, and cast posthumously under contract with the National Gallery, Prague, sold for a record £34,850 ($56,600), against an estimate of £8,000/12,000.
Other records for paintings were set by Frantisek Foltyn’s Imperialism, 1925, which sold for £433,250 ($703,600), on an estimate of £120,000/180,000, and Bohumil Kubista’s Cézanne-esque Still Life with Fruit, 1909, which sold for £397,250 ($645,134), compared with an estimate of £300,000/500,000. Coming close to a record was Sculptress in the Studio, 1946, a Picasso-like painting by Emil Filla, which sold for £623,650 ($1 million) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000. The painting had been bought at Sotheby’s New York in November 1996 for $94,916 (£57,000).
Over the last decade, prices for Czech artists who were connected to the Cubist, Expressionist or Surrealist art movements in Paris have increased as buyers from the former Czechoslovakia have repatriated works to form collections. But this was the first auction of exclusively modern Czech art to be held outside central Europe and saw a packed room of bidders competing against telephone bidders.