Max Beckmann self-portrait breaks German art auction record with €20m sale

<span>Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP</span>
Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP

A rare and remarkable self-portrait by the 20th-century German expressionist Max Beckmann has sold in Berlin for €20m (£17m), breaking the record for a work of art sold at auction in Germany.

The striking Selbstbildnis gelb-rosa (Self-portrait Yellow-Pink) was painted by Beckmann during his wartime exile in Amsterdam after he fled Nazi Germany. The identity of its new owner was not immediately available. With fees and other charges, the cost to the buyer was €23.2m.

The sale at the Villa Grisebach auction house attracted buyers from around the world. The auction house’s director, Micaela Kapitzky, said it was a unique opportunity to buy a Beckmann self-portrait. “A work by him of this kind and quality will not come up again. This is very special,” she said.

The auctioneer, Markus Krause, told potential buyers “this chance will never come again”.

Beckmann completed the work in 1944, when he was in his 50s, and in it portrays his much younger self. The painting remained in possession of his wife, Mathilde, known as Quappi, until her death, and it was last up for sale in 1996.

Related: Max Beckmann self-portrait poised to fetch record price at German auction

Before the sale, thousands flocked to see the work, first in New York where it was on display in November, and later at the 19th-century Villa Grisebach, in the centre of west Berlin.

The sale is a coup for Villa Grisebach, which was established in 1986 when Berlin was still divided by the wall. At the time, high-end German art trading took place mainly in Munich and Cologne, or in auction houses in London and New York.

The painting was lot 19 among 56 other works, from Otto Dix and Egon Schiele to Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It beat the record for a work auctioned in Germany by more than €10m. Last year the Nagel auction house in Stuttgart sold a bronze sculpture given by a concubine to the Chinese emperor Chenghua in 1473 for €9.5m. Beckmann painted numerous self-portraits, which are greatly sought after by collectors but rarely available for sale, but this work is considered unusual due to the artist’s rare choice of bright colours. The yellow fabric and the fur trim of what might be a dressing gown, or a nod to what Beckmann called his “artist king” figure, express sovereignty over his own self at a time when he often felt trapped and lacking control over his life.

This attempt at stateliness became increasingly overshadowed the longer he was a refugee, with Beckmann describing the figure he embodied as “searching for his homeland, but having lost his home along the way”.

Beckmann left Germany for Amsterdam in 1937, a day after hearing Adolf Hitler deliver a speech condemning “degenerate” artists. Authorities subsequently confiscated 500 of his works from museums. Beckmann and his wife, Mathilde, never returned to Germany, emigrating to the US a decade later where he died in 1950.

When Amsterdam was invaded by German troops in 1940, it was no longer a safe haven, and he withdrew into his studio in an old canal-side tobacco warehouse, where his painting, particularly his self-portraits, became key to his survival or, as the art critic Eugen Blume said, “emblematic expressions of the spiritual crisis he endured”. The decade Beckmann spent in Amsterdam became his most prolific period.

“Beckmann had to watch helplessly as the German occupiers interned Dutch Jews, among them personal friends of his, at the Westerbork concentration camp,” said Blume. Beckmann narrowly avoided being called up himself owing to heart disease, but he lived in constant fear he might be arrested or his paintings confiscated. “Withdrawing into his atelier … became a self-imposed obligation that protected him from breaking down,” Blume said.

Beckmann wrote in his diary: “Silent death and conflagration all around me and yet I still live.”

According to Kapitzky, Beckmann “gifted several of his self-portraits to Quappi, then variously took them away from her to give to friends or to sell. But this one she clung on to and never let go up until her death in 1986.”

“Very possibly this is because of what it stood for,” she added. “He has painted himself as a young man and it is full of vitality and an internal strength and defiance, his will to overcome this difficult time, and there is also his calm, enigmatic smile.”