Here Are 5 Alluring Lots to Watch in Germany’s Summer Auctions, From A.R. Penck’s Childhood Sketchbook to a Lost Kandinsky
We combed through the auction catalogues and picked out some of the hottest items on sale.
Germany’s major auctions, which take place biannually, are gearing up for their summer season. The sales, which take place at houses across the country in June, lack the pomp of a marquee evening affair in New York or London, but are also filled with considerably more affordable gems.
Germany enters the season in a strong position. Unlike almost any other country, total auction sales actually grew in Germany last year, by three percent, according to the Artnet Intelligence Report. In December, the Louvre Abu Dhabi paid €4.3 million for a nocturne portrait by Georges de La Tour at Kunsthaus Lempertz, making it the most expensive Old Master to ever sell at a German auction house.
But perhaps an even more fortuitous sign for Germany’s market was the news that Sotheby’s would return to the country after a decades-long hiatus. The international auction house has confirmed that it will begin Germany-based sales later in 2021 (online at first, with the possibility of live auctions to come). Since closing its Munich offices, the house has continued to source from within Germany, but believes the time is right to start selling there again, too.
It will likely face stiff competition in a landscape dominated by prominent regional houses that pluck from storied private collections. Two such collections are the focus of dedicated sales this month: the contemporary art collection of Thomas Olbricht at Van Ham in Cologne, and a collection initiated by the photographer August Sander at Grisebach in Berlin.
Ahead of the sales, we spoke to auction-house experts, poured over catalogues, and examined historic auction data to pluck out the most intriguing lots to keep your eye on this month.
Elmgreen & Dragset
Adaptation, Fig. 20 (2020)
Where It’s Offered: Grisebach’s contemporary art auction, June 11, Berlin
Estimate: €35,000 to €45,000
Why It’s Desirable: The Berlin auction house is holding a sale to benefit the KW Institute for Contemporary Art on its 30th anniversary. (Artists who donate work to the sale take home half the proceeds and donate the rest to KW.) The offerings reflect the influential institution’s strong track record of showing Berlin-based artists with an international profile. Among them is Elmgreen & Dragset, the Scandinavian duo (and biennale favorites) known for witty sculptures. This cheeky work—offered at a price competitive with their primary market—is characteristic of their practice, but also captures the mood of the lockdown year. The reflective sign adapts to its environment: wherever it goes, there it is.
Other Notable Highlights: Two artists included in KW’s 30th anniversary exhibitions also contributed work. A witty watercolor by German painter Amelie von Wulffen from 2021 is estimated at the affordable price of €3,000 to €4,000, competitive with the primary market for her work. Meanwhile, José Leonilson’s five-part oil stick from 1988 is a treasure by an overlooked artist (estimate: €127,000 to €150,000). A major exhibition of his work organized by KW, “Leonilson: Drawn 1975–1993,” is currently on view at Malmö Konsthall.
Zone Riflesse (1963)
Where It’s Offered: Karl & Faber’s modern art sale, Munich, June 14
Estimate: €180,000 to €250,000
Why It’s Desirable: This is a handsome example of Zero Group artist Scheggi’s well-known three-layered canvas cutouts, created during a period when the artist was, unsurprisingly, very close with fellow canvas-slasher Lucio Fontana. Heads up for bargain hunters: this work last sold at Sotheby’s Milan in 2016 for €315,000 after having been held in the same collection since 1991. It’s now back on the market with a lower estimate.
Other Notable Highlights: Also on offer at Karl & Faber: the nude Solitude (1896) by Austrian painter Hans Thoma, a painting so modern-looking that you could be forgiven for thinking it dates from a different century. It’s on offer in the Old Masters and 19th century art sale on June 16 for a modest estimate of €25,000 to €35,000.
Untitled (Skizzenbuch 57/Ralf) (c. 1957)
Where It’s Offered: Kunsthaus Lempertz’s contemporary art evening sale, Berlin, June 17
Presale estimate: €15,000 to €20,000
Why It’s Desirable: East German-born painter A.R. Penck, a contemporary of Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, was astoundingly prolific, so his prints and sketches are frequently floating around the German market. Yet every once in a while, a unique treasure emerges. The earliest known sketchbook by Penck, made when he was just 18 in Dresden, includes 58 drawings in pen, ink, red chalk, and pencil. There are portraits of his mother, father, and grandmother attending to daily chores at home. This understated lot has not been overlooked by curators: it was included in two of his retrospectives, at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle in 2007 and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2008.
Other Notable Highlights: A 1991 work by auction powerhouse Yoshitomo Nara, who was Penck’s student at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, carries an estimate of €180,000 to €220,000. Penck’s influence is on full display in this early, sketch-like composition of a young girl.
Gebogene Spitzen (1927)
Where It’s Offered: Ketterer Kunst, evening sale, Munich, June 18
Presale estimate: €250,000 to €350,000
Why It’s Desirable: A good piece of art always comes with a story. And Kandinsky’s Gebogene Spitzen reflects the chaos and tumult of World War II. The watercolor on paper—an exemplary composition of his free-floating geometric forms—has resurfaced after decades in obscurity. Created when Kandinsky was teaching at the Bauhaus in an increasingly right-wing Germany, it traveled with the artist when he and his wife fled to France. Its whereabouts have been unknown since it was sold in 1944 through German dealer Rudolf Probst—that is, until now. A similar painting in style, size, and time period, Bestimmt (1929) fetched $732,500 at Christie’s New York in 2017, suggesting this work could blow past its presale estimate.
Other Notable Highlights: Additional treasures from the Bauhaus on offer include the first-ever portfolio of the original Bauhaus school cohort in Weimar from 1921. The collection of woodcuts, etchings, and lithographs by artists including Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer is estimated to sell for between €150,000 and €180,000.
Untitled #359 (2000)
Where It’s Offered: Van Ham, the Olbricht Collection, Cologne, June 23
Estimate: €15,000 to €20,000
Why It’s Desirable: This photograph—number five from an edition of six—has a good CV. It’s been on view at the Museum Folkwang, in Essen, in 2007; Kunsthalle Krems in 2010; and, of course, at Thomas Olbricht’s now-closed private museum in Berlin. Given the small-run edition, this lot is a fair deal; another work by Sherman from Olbricht—also from a run of six—hammered at €15,000 last fall at Van Ham, according to Artnet’s Price Database. Since then, Sherman has joined Hauser & Wirth, which is likely to bump her prices up further on the primary market.
Other Notable Highlights: If you’ve found yourself on the wait list for a Katharina Grosse painting, now’s your chance. Grosse’s large Untitled (2015) (estimate: €300,000 to €500,000) was on view six years ago in her solo exhibition “The Smoking Kid,” the first show at Johann König’s newly renovated St. Agnes church.
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