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Flash News! Records at Christie’s – Kirkeby – Gurlitt

[17 Nov 2017]

A night of records at Christie’s

In New York on 13 November 2017, the Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale made an extraordinary impact, with sales totalling $491 million, the second-best result in Christie’s long history in this sales category.

Monet, Vuillard, Van Gogh, Léger, Picasso and Magritte have, among other great artists, caused a sensation among the wealthiest buyers on the planet, including Asian collectors who are particularly active and determined buyers on the telephone. Thanks to buyers worldwide, Christie’s managed to sell 88% of the lots offered and 96% of the works met their estimation.

The highlight of this sale, Vincent VAN GOGH‘s Le Laboureur dans un champ (1889), a painting completed a year before the artist’s death, went through the roof at $81.3 million, just $1.2 million below his absolute record set in 1990 for the famous Portrait of Dr. Gachet.

Second best sale during this incredible evening, Fernand LÉGER‘s Contraste de formes (1913), reached $70 million, which is the new world record for the French artist, well over the $39.2 million reached five years ago. A new record also for Édouard VUILLARD, with his subtle canvas entitled Misia et Vallotton (1899) selling for $17.75 million, beating his previous record by nearly $10m; and for Belgian painter René MAGRITTE, whose L’Empire des lumières (1949) went under the hammer for $20.5 million. 2017 is all the more striking for Magritte’s rating as his previous record dates back to last February, with $17.9 million for La Corde sensible (Christie’s London). Bidders also fought doggedly at $500,000 and $1m per bid for Pablo PICASSO‘s Femme accroupie. Starting at $12m, Femme accroupie steadily rose to $32m, i.e. $36.87m including fees. Auctioneer Guillaume Cerrutti who led the sale with verve, expressed his satisfaction at the press conference at the end of the evening.

Kirkeby’s brick sculptures at the Beaux-Arts

The Parisian institution celebrates its 200th anniversary this year! The programming during autumn 2017 is centred around sculpture: under the glazed roof of the courtyard in the Palais des études, Per KIRKEBY‘s works occupy a space closely linked to the history of sculpture, and which was intended for nearly a century (from 1874 to 1971) to showcase the plaster casts and copies of Roman and Greek sculptures. For the Beaux-Arts, the artist has created twelve works, including a monumental construction, a group of three flat sculptures and a new set of eight monoliths.

Per Kirkeby creates controversy: the artist born in 1938 and living in Copenhagen works in various disciplines, blurring the boundaries between the arts. He is developing a singular oeuvre rooted in the history of art, from 19th-century German and French masters to Expressionist movements in the eighties, his work has also always been influenced by his studies in geology. His sculptures, always in brick, are sometimes as big as a piece of architecture and are ideal for games such as hide and seek. Derived from the Minimal art of the 1960s and initially designed for museums and galleries, these ambiguous forms, which borrow their techniques, and sometimes their scale, from architecture, are often displayed in the parks or the streets of many cities in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries. While hundreds of these pieces have been built and the artist has many other projects in the pipeline, no exhibition has ever been exclusively dedicated to his work. The eight monoliths attract particular attention as it is a recurring form in Kirkeby’s work. They appear in his first projects, in the mid-sixties, as small monoliths of less than one metre in size and simply stacked. While his paintings are essentially Pop-inspired, these early brick works echo the minimal trend that prevailed at the time. Using simple geometric shapes, theses monoliths are reminiscent of ancient milestones or cairns on mountain paths. Kirkeby often explains that his painting draws its inspiration from the elemental forms of his sculpture: « Brick blocks are the structure of my paintings, their inner scaffolding, their skeleton. » His paintings and prints are indeed his best-selling works. 2016 was a great year with his ranking at 774, and a superb result with more than $230,000 for a painting from 1983 sold at Christie’s London. This exhibition turns the spotlight on the artist, allowing the French public to rediscover Kirkeby’s work, which is mainly collected in Denmark, and whose sculptures are rare on the market.

Gurlitt or the thorny issue of confiscation

There is nothing commonplace in the opening of the event  »Gurlitt: Status Report »: neither the origin of the amazing artistic collection on display, nor the media coverage following its incredible discovery in 2012, the controversial personality of its owner or its unusual presentation to the public through two exhibitions, one in Switzerland and the other in Germany, which opened simultaneously two weeks ago.

Bern’s Kunstmuseum is exhibiting 150 works considered as « degenerate » by the Nazis and confiscated from German museums. These treasures, whether it is Otto Mueller’s Portrait of Maschka Mueller, Emil Nolde’s Fischerkinder, Cézanne’s 1897 Montagne Sainte-Victoire or Otto Dix’s Gasmake, were thought to be irreparably lost only six years ago. The exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn focuses more on works stolen as part of Nazi persecution and whose origin has not yet been established with absolute certainty.

The works exhibited, however, represent only a small part of the approximately 1,500 works found at Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich and Salzburg residences since 2012, following a tax fraud investigation. The existence of the collection was revealed in November 2013 by the magazine Focus. Born into a family of artists and art historians, Cornelius Gurlitt made a living by selling works of art from the collection of his father Hildebrandt Gurlitt. This art historian was targeted by the Nazi regime both because of his Jewish origins and his passion for Modern Art: director of the Zwickau museum, he notably exhibited, as early as 1925, works by Max Pechstein, Käthe Kollwitz and Erich Heckel. Removed from this position, he became an art dealer and his expertise on artists considered as « degenerate » became invaluable to the Nazis.

Following the publication of the « 3 May 1938 law on the withdrawal of degenerate works of art, » the sale of the confiscated works aimed at being converted into foreign currency abroad was entrusted to four art dealers, including Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was commissioned to buy works in France for the future Führersmuseum. He thus acquired for himself works confiscated from Jewish families in Europe or sold at low prices by desperate artists or collectors. After the war, he was rehabilitated after an acquittal in June 1948 due to his Jewish ancestry, the fact he didn’t belong to any Nazi organisations and his involvement in the promotion of Modern Art. A whole range of specialists, curators and historians worked on the « Gurlitt case », an extraordinary affair, in order to define the clear provenance of these works, some of which are being given back to their rightful owners, for example Henri MATISSE‘s Seated Woman, confiscated from the Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg in 1940 or Two horsemen on the beach by Max LIEBERMANN, from David Friedmann’s confiscated collection, which was returned in 2013 to his grand-nephew David Toren, whom then sold it at Sotheby’s London in June 2015 for just under $3m.

These exhibitions, which show a desire for transparency (which was cruelly lacking when the case first came to light) and aim at giving the opportunity to the general public to discover invaluable works, are also part of a communication strategy aimed at proving that Germany is putting considerable resources in place to shed light on this particularly dark chapter in its history.

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