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Max Beckmann's 'Birds' Hell' leads Christie's £149.5 million London sale
Auctioneer and Global President Jussi Pylkkänen selling Max Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell) (1937-38), for £36,005,000. © Christie’s Images Limited 2017.

LONDON.- The highlight of 20th Century Week at Christie’s in London, the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale was 94 per cent sold by lot and 87 per cent sold by value, realising a total of £149,500,000 (including premium), with three works selling for more than £20 million.

The top lot of the night was Max Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell). Completed over the course of 1937 and 1938 and depicting mankind’s descent into darkness and terror, the painting is the artist’s visceral response to the rise of the Nazi regime in his native Germany.

There was keen bidding before the painting was hammered down for £36,005,000 / $45,834,365 (with premium), setting a new world auction record for the artist, as well as the highest price realised for an Expressionist work. The previous world auction record for Beckmann was $22,555,750, set in 2001.

‘The sale of such a historically significant painting as Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell demonstrates Christie’s ability to lead with masterpieces that resonate on the international market,’ commented Adrien Mayer, International Director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘This emblematic picture has become unanimously recognised as the Guernica of Expressionism and the international appetite was evidenced in the spirited bidding witnessed in the saleroom and on the phone.’

The sale was packed with highlights, including Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse) by Pablo Picasso. Painted on 26 March 1934, this is an intimate portrait of the woman the artist’s biographer, John Richardson, describes as having inspired the ‘most ecstatically erotic’ works of the artist’s career.

‘Picasso kept this work for a very long time,’ confirmed Diana Widmaier Picasso, granddaughter of both the artist and sitter. ‘It was a very, very important work: one of the last paintings from the golden period representing Marie-Thérèse.’ It duly sold for £34,885,000 / $44,408,605.

Le moissonneur (d’après Millet) by Vincent van Gogh was painted in 1889, less than a year before the artist took his own life. The painting is one of 10 works inspired by Millet’s series of drawings of quietly dignified peasants. Seven of these are now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; Le moissonneur — which can be translated as ‘The reaper’ — was one of just three in private hands. The painting sold for £24,245,000 / $30,863,885 against an estimate of £12,500,000-16,500,000.

World artist records were also set for Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), with Composition dans le carré avec couleurs jaune-vert-bleu-indigo-orangé, which sold for £1,085,000 / $1,381,205, almost doubling the previous record set at Christie’s in 2012. Hannah Höch’s widely exhibited Frau und Saturn, 1922, also sold for £1,085,000 / $1,381,205, eclipsing the previous mark set at Christie’s in New York in 2007.

20th Century Week opened 24 hours earlier with the Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale, which realised a total of £20,199,500. The top lot of the night was Henry Moore’s Family Group, which saw spirited bidding in the room and on the phone before selling for £3,861,000 / $4,918,914 to an Asian collector.

Barbara Hepworth’s Curved Form (Bryher II) realised £3,301,000 / $4,205,474 and is currently featured in the exhibition Sculpture in the Square, an outdoor sculpture garden set within St James’s Square, until 29 June 2017

The sale opened with a world auction record for Henry Lamb’s Portrait of Edie McNeill (£281,000 / $357,994). Additional records were achieved for Victor Pasmore’s Linear Motif in Black and White (£329,000 / $419,146) and Nic Fiddian-Green’s Still Water (£209,000 / $266,266). A record in the medium was set for L. S. Lowry’s 1939 drawing A Station Platform (£269,000 / $342,706).

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