Birds' Hell (1938) was offered with an estimate on request, thought to be in the region of £30m at Christie's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale tonight (Tuesday 27 June).
It came to auction from a US collector who had acquired it in a private sale in 1983.
Christie's had arranged a third party guarantee in advance of the auction, meaning a minimum price had already been agreed.
The bidding, which started at £24m and hovered at £31m, was eventually taken to a winning £32m bid from Gagosian who was in the saleroom. He was on his mobile and believed to be bidding for a client.
The previous high for a Beckmann (1884-1950) at auction was Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) which sold for a premium-inclusive £15.9m ($22.6m) at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001.
Christie’s said Birds' Hell “ranks among the clearest and most important anti-Nazi statements that the artist ever made, mirroring the escalating violence, oppression and terror of the National Socialist regime”.
Beckmann created the work while in exile in Amsterdam, having fled Germany. He completed the oil on canvas in Paris at the end of 1938. It was previously shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another highlight of the sale was Van Gogh's 1889 work Le moissonneur (d’après Millet) which was hammered down at £21.5m against an estimate of £12.5m-16.5m.
Painted as the artist recovered from a mental breakdown, the oil on canvas depicts a reaper in a field and is a copy of print by Van Gogh's favourite artist, Jean-François Millet.
Also at the evening sale, Pablo Picasso’s Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse) (1934), described by Christie’s as the “pinnacle of the artist’s portrayals of one of his most celebrated muses”, was hammered down at £31m, against an estimate of £25m-40m.
However one of the lots with high expectations that failed to find a buyer was Egon Schiele’s Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen) (1915). Painted during the First World War, it carried an estimate of £20m-30m.
The Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale, which is part of Christie’s ‘20th century week’, achieved a premium-inclusive total of £149.5m with 30 of the 32 lots sold (94%). The hammer total was £130.8m. The ‘20th century week’ continues today with the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale and the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale.