IT TOOK TWO MINUTES and forty-eight seconds to settle on twenty million euros as the hammer price of the most expensive artwork ever sold in Germany. It was a self-portrait by Max Beckmann from 1943 that hung behind an impressively soft-spoken auctioneer on Thursday night. A piece of theater at once slight and dumbfounding, it was all very German. Grisebach, it said on the lectern in red sans-serif font that recalled the logo of the Deutsche Bahn. It is an unlikely house for such a sale, the kind usually taken to Manhattan or Mayfair. But we were in Charlottenburg, and the room was packed. Beckmann’s hard yet peaceful face was lot number 19 out of 57, so the evening climaxed early.
Along the sides of the room, like monks in the choir of a gothic cathedral, was Grisebach’s team of men and women, dressed in black and adorned with subtle, exquisite jewelry. Long earrings dangled from behind blow-dried hair; gold flashed on a wrist beneath pinstriped fabric. Everyone was glued to their landlines. I don’t know when I last saw coiled phone cords, but the atmosphere seemed to depend on them for its claim to grandeur.
In London and New York, no one shows up, my more auction-seasoned companion informed me. In Berlin, not so. The buildup to the much-anticipated lot number 19 saw a nineteenth-century marble bust of Friedrich the Great go for 120,000 euros, twice its low estimate, to a man wearing jeans and ergonomic sneakers. How will it go with the rest of his interior design scheme, I wondered? He left with a smile on his face shortly after. Not so the man behind him, who lost his bid on a Georges Braque. It must be disappointing to have so much money and still not get what you want. Or perhaps this is the thrill of the art auction: It confronts you with your own limitations.
An interested buyer failed to pick up the phone at the right moment, so the sale of a Max Pechstein was delayed and the thoroughbred teenagers who held the harsh, yellow painting in their white-gloved hands backed out of the room. Once the buyer was reached, they purchased the work for twenty thousand euros more than the standing bid, just to get it over with. How little money matters; how mysterious the rich.
Jesuit churches of the seventeenth century would often change out their altarpieces with a hoisting system in order to keep the congregation from getting bored over the course of the year. Deemed too ostentatious, the Jesuits were largely chased out of Northern Europe. But times have changed, I thought, as a sweet little Paul Klee was replaced by an Egon Schiele, several Otto Dixes, and a rider on the beach by Max Lieberman, all in a matter of minutes.
Read as an exhibition, the ritual stacking of eclectic artistic statements is conceptually dizzying. What do these works mean in the moment the gavel drops? Increasingly, potential buyers are no longer reminded of their grandparents at the sight of Expressionism, and people are nuts for Weimar at the moment because the absurdity and turbulence of that era are so obviously resonant. It might finally be time for Monet mania to yield the secondary market to the somber Germans.
A bitingly satirical street scene from 1930 by the less-than-famous Georg Kinzer suggests as much—estimated to fetch 30,000, it went for 130,000. The cramped canvas shows a beggar bypassed by a woman in furs who looks remarkably like the pig exhibited in the butcher shop window behind her. I look around at the fur coats that dot the room to see who the buyer was. Is this the performative, expanded field of New Objectivity?
Likewise jarring is Beckmann’s self-portrait, painted in political exile, and now returned to the bourgeois bosom of the German capital. It is true that there is a kind of tranquility to his expression, which stands in contrast to his more skeptical look in a work from 1938 sold at Sotheby’s for the similar amount of 22.5 million dollars in 2001 and now on view at New York’s Neue Galerie. Still, it is a picture that seems to tear your eyelids off and glue your gaze to everything that is brutal and difficult in the world. Beckmann’s face is shadowed, and his arms weirdly stiff, folded across his chest. To him, art was ‘ultima ratio regis,’ I read in the catalogue—the king’s last resort, the only possible solution. What else was he to do in the despair of his Amsterdam exile? And what solution does this picture offer the kings of the art market today?
The bidding started at thirteen million and crawled steadily upward. The voices on the phones quickly changed into English. “I’ve got seventeen million” the auctioneer said, and pointed to himself, a marvelous gesture. At twenty million, the last of the Grisebach monks still on the line shook her head in surrender and Beckmann’s self-portrait sold to a gentleman in the room. Was there a hint of disappointment in the air? The words “thirty million” had already circulated; there was no going back. How arbitrary money can seem, like language, or a missed phone call. A great achievement, everyone said, a “sure record.”
In the buyer’s breast pocket was a starched white handkerchief, folded into a triangle. His silver hair was combed back and under the dark suit he wore a burgundy sweater and tie. On his finger was a large blue stone, perhaps a sapphire like Diana’s. The painting will go to a collector in Switzerland, he told my friend as he shook her hand warmly in the frenzied aftermath. I did not see his shoes.