Following Sotheby’s sale last week in which Kandinsky achieved a double record (see Two Records for Kandinsky at Sotheby’s), the sales in London have restarted. On Tuesday, Christie’s, which decided not to hold a sale of contemporary art in London this June, held its evening dedicated to modern and Impressionist art.

Christie’s sale beat that of its rival, achieving a total of £149.4 million (compared with a little over £127 million at Sotheby’s) with 94% of sales finding a buyer.

The most important work of the evening was Birds’ Hell (1948) by Max Beckmann, which Christie’s presented as an “Expressionist Guernica”. It is a work of historic importance as it was the first painting Beckmann produced after having fled Germany in 1937. In exile with his wife in the Netherlands, he painted this fierce allegory of the Nazi regime. In it we see a naked man lying face down as his back is devoured by a bird. Next to him, a blue woman arising from an egg gives a Nazi salute.

The work had been the property of American gallerist Richard Feigen since 1983. It was sold for £32 million, a record for the artist at auction. Several collectors bid for the work. According to Le Monde, it was sold to the famous gallerist Larry Gagosian on behalf of collector Leon Black, believed to be the purchaser of Edvard Munch’s Scream. Birds’ Hell had previously been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a retrospective dedicated to the artist.

Max Beckmann

Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse), Picasso © Christie’s

Other highlights of the evening included a painting by Picasso, Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse), a portrait painted in 1934 at the start of his affair with the young woman. It was knocked down for £34.9 million. Van Gogh’s The Reaper (after Millet) was painted by the artist while in the asylum at Saint-Paul de Mausole in 1889. It was sold for £24.2 million.

The evening was marked by three artists’ records: Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell, a painting by the Belgian artist Georges Vantongerloo (Composition dans le carré avec couleurs jaune-vert-bleu-indigo-orangé, £1.1 million), and a work by the Dada artist Hannah Höch (Frau und Saturn, £1.08 million).

The sales continued the following evening when Sotheby’s turned its attention to contemporary art.

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