German Expressionism – aggression with a brush



The price index for German expressionist masters has been particularly dynamic over the past 2 years. Underpinning this price progression: a rarefaction of the offer; some exceptional works coming to market and plenty of recent exhibitions. For example, Emil Nolde is currently being honoured with a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris – until 19 January 2009.

Over the last two years, the auction results of Emil NOLDE (1867-1956) have been spectacular. Already in 2002 he emerged as the top-ranking German artist (by sales volume) with an annual revenue figure of 4.6 million euros. In 2006, sales of his works generated no less than 20 millions euros! This year, there have been numerous sales above the million-dollar line in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. A heavily framed portrait from 1919 intituled Rotblondes Mädchen, from which emerges a piecing melancholic look, generated a new auction record for the artist when it sold for GBP 1.85 million (EUR 2.7m) on 20 June 2006 at Christie’s in London. This strange face, disturbing and captivating at the same time, reflects a particular side of the work of Nolde who examined the portrait and became fascinated by the duality of masks. On the same day of the sale (dedicated to German and Austrian art) Christie’s generated a record for one of his seascapes (1909): an explosion of colour at the frontier with abstraction entitled Sonnenuntergang which sold for GBP 1.7 million (nearly EUR 2.5 million).
Five months after the Nolde record, Ernst Ludwig KIRCHNER‘s caused an auction sensation: his painting Berliner Strassenszene/Bäume was a leader lot of the Christie’s New York sale on 8 November 2006. An entire 12-page dossier was devoted to the work in the sales catalogue. It was even compared with Picasso’s famous Demoiselles D’Avignon painted five years before Kirchner’s Berlin street scene. The final result measured up handsomely to the expectations of the auctioneer: 34 million dollars for this museum piece, 10 million above its high estimate. That year (2006), Kirchner’s works generated an outstanding total revenue figure of EUR 42.29 million! Fuelled by the exceptional 2006 results, the good health of his price index has continued through 2007 and 2008.

In 2007, the strongest sales revenue figure was generated by Alexej VON JAWLENSKY (1864-1941): 12 sales above the million-dollar line and a total revenue of EUR 29.2 million over the year, i.e. 20 million more than in 2005. And 2005 was already a very good year for the artist’s price index. In fact, Sotheby’s generated his record in New York with a flamboyant portrait of Schokko (painted around 1910) that had remained in private hands since its acquisition at the end of the 1960s. The piece fetched USD 7.4 million. But when the new owner saw the spectacular results that Jawlensky’s work was fetching in 2007, he sent the painting back to auction on 5 February 2008 in London where it sold for 9 million dollars more than at the previous transaction (Sotheby’s GBP 8.4 million, or USD 16.5 million).

The London sales of February and June 2008 were both positive for each of the members of the Die Brücke including Kirchner and Nolde, but also for other expressionists like Hermann Max PECHSTEIN, Karl SCHMIDT-ROTTLUFF, Otto MUELLER and Erich HECKEL. In June 2008, Pechstein tripled his low estimate for a circus scene with zebras and camels that sold for the record price of GBP 1.7 million at Sotheby’s (Zirkus mit Dromedaren, USD 3.35 million).

These million-dollar masterpieces are rare however and their buyers are very demanding. Each year, dozens of works are bought in because they do not exude the expressionist spirit. This was the case, for example, of an Otto DIX landscape that was offered for GBP 50,000 at Christie’ in June of this year. The overly ‘classic’ subject matter did not interest anyone… But if you offer buyers a charcoal drawing by the same artists from the same period representing a succubus with hideous features, then the biding will go substantially beyond this kind of price range. The demonic Sitzender Weiblicher Rückenakt that was offered at the Villa Grisebach in May 2008 fetched 180,000 euros although estimated at 50 to 70 thousand euros.