Max Beckmann (1884-1950)

[04 May 2003]


After the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Tate Modern in London, it is MoMA’s turn to welcome the Beckmann retrospective from 26 June 2003. Beckmann is renowned in the auction world as the holder of the world record price for a German painting.

Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1884, and studied in different towns around Europe. An accomplished painter he formed part of the Berlin Secession from 1905. In 1914 he experienced the horrors of the trenches as a volunteer nurse, an experience that surfaced in a series of black engravings and drawings and shifted his hitherto impressionist style decisively towards expressionism. By 1925, when he exhibited at the Kunsthalle Mannheim alongside artists form the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement including Otto DIX, Christian SCHAD and George GROSZ he was working in a style of social realism with a pronouncedly jaundiced edge. Gradually, though, his artistic eye seemed to soften a little. The outlines remained harsh but forms became less angular and disjointed. Bright colours began to creep into his palette.
Max BECKMANN visited France on a number of occasions and began spending part of the year in Paris from 1929 onwards. He first achieved recognition in 1931 with a large exhibition at the Renaissance Gallery in Paris and this rapidly spread back to his native Germany where he had a solo exhibition at the Nationalgalerie Berlin in 1932. But condemned as a degenerate by Nazi propaganda he emigrated to the Netherlands in 1937.

Artworks at auctions

He produced more than 800 paintings in his life but the auction market in Beckmann’s work is dominated by prints which account for 91% of lots sold. Some engravings can go for as much as EUR 150,000-200,000. But most are more affordable, 90% selling for less than EUR 20,000 and 60% for less than EUR 4,000. A total of 113 Beckmann works were sold at auction in 2002. The most prized are works from the 1930s and his self-portraits or female portraits. He is now the most costly of the Neue Sachlichkeit group after his Selbstbildnis mit Horn sold for USD 20.5 million at Sotheby’s New York on May 10 2001. The painting was bought by Ronald S. Lauder, founder of the Neue Galerie New York. Of the ten priciest Neue Sachlichkeit works sold in the last decade eight were by Beckmann.

The market places

London and New York are the preferred venues for major pieces. They crop up regularly in thematic “German and Austrian” art sales. Buyers tend to be European. German houses often have inexpensive prints and Germany is actually the biggest market by transaction volumes, with 56% of Beckmann works changing hands there. That said, all these sales in Germany only made up 3% of the artist’s turnover in 1999-2002.

Buy or sell

His price level has risen healthily and as we saw in the famous record sale of 2001 the best canvases have become rare and are snapped up whenever they appear. Overall, EUR 100 invested in 1997 in a work by Max Beckmann would be worth an average EUR 180 in 2002. While painting sales have driven the market there has also been a sharp rise in the price of Beckmann drawings. Some have doubled in price in less than a year, like the Male Nude bought for EUR 3,800 in December 1998 and resold for EUR 6,900 the following May at Dörling, Hamburg. The enthusiasm of buyers was evident in the no-sale trend which has gradually fallen from 30% in 1999 to 18% in 2002. Strong demand for small prints is pushing up prices in the segment faster than other formats. Am Klavier, a small etching from 1913 sold for EUR 900 in April 2002, had been knocked down for less than EUR 500 three years previously.

    Max BeckmannArtprice Indexall media categories, base January 1997 = 100, currency: EUR   Max Beckmann Number of lots sold   Max Beckmann Auction sales turnover 1999-2002 / weight by country © Artprice