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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 'Akte im Wald/Fehmarn' (Nudes in the Wood/Fehmarn) that sold for €1.2m (£1.06m) at Grisebach. Photo: Fotostudio Bartsch, Karen Bartsch, Berlin/Grisebach GmbH.

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In 1912, the artist made his first visit to the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea, accompanied by his new partner Erna Schilling. Freed from the constraints of Berlin, Kirchner found – albeit temporarily – his paradise.

Among the paintings from this creative phase was the 20 x 20in (51 x 51cm) Akte im Wald/Fehmarn (Nudes in the Wood/Fehmarn) which was on offer in Berlin. The painting was sold by the artist to the German-Jewish collector Alfred Hess in about 1918.

Several years after his death in 1931, Hess’ widow was forced to disperse her husband’s collection under duress. For many decades the Kirchner was considered lost and only resurfaced in 2009 when it was sold in Cologne for €900,000.

Before that auction, the descendants of Hess and the consignor agreed to the terms of the sale. This time around the estimate was put at €1.2m-1.5m and a Spanish collector secured the painting at the lower estimate (£1.06m).

The auction took place on November 29.

Perennial favourite

For many years, the Expressionist painter Emil Nolde (1867-1956) has been a perennial favourite with German collectors, regularly taking high auction prices.

The sale at Ketterer (25% buyer’s premium) in Munich on December 8 showed that his paintings also attract buyers from further afield. On offer was his 2ft 5in x 3ft 6in (74cm x 1.07m) oil Herbstwolken, Friesland (Autumn Clouds, Friesland) from 1929.

It came from a German private collection, but was previously owned by Bernhard Sprengel, a chocolate manufacturer and passionate art collector.

He had acquired the painting in 1941, ignoring the Nazi doctrine that Expressionist art was ‘degenerate’.

Ketterer was expecting €1.2m and after the initial skirmishes the field thinned out to two German collectors and a Russian competitor.

The Russian won the day with her winning bid of €1.35m (£1.19m).

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'Herbstwolken, Friesland' (Autumn Clouds, Friesland) by Emil Nolde, which made €1.35m (£1.19m) at Ketterer Kunst.

The top-seller in Ketterer’s contemporary section was Zero artist Günther Uecker’s 2ft x 2ft (60 x 60cm) nail-painting Zärtlicher Garten (Tender Garden) from 1964.

That year was a highly important milestone in Uecker’s career, marking his international breakthrough, aided by a major exhibition in New York.

Phone bidders from Germany, Britain, Switzerland and the US pushed the price from €550,000 to an impressive €1.17m (£1.04m) and this time it was a German collector who had the deepest pockets.

Along with Uecker, Heinz Mack (b.1931) is the most successful surviving artist from the Zero group. One of his works set an auction record in the sale of contemporary art held by Van Ham (29/25% buyer’s premium) in Cologne on November 28.

It was a truly monumental piece: an Objektkasten (object case) of wood and Perspex measuring 6ft 8in x 10ft (2.04 x 3.04m), with the aluminum composition Kleiner Urwald (Little Jungle).

This was one of Mack’s ‘Light Sculptures’, formed from aluminum mesh which caught and reflected the light. The honeycomb-mesh he used was originally made for the aerospace industry and was easy to shape.

In Cologne the composition from 1966 certainly caught the eye of numerous bidders. The guide of €150,000-200,000 was soon left behind and it was only when the price reached €800,000 (£707,965) that bidding came to an end.

This is almost twice the previous record, which had been held by Christie’s in Paris since 2015 when the mixed-media Vibrationen der Stille (Vibration of Silence) from 1959 found a new owner for €420,000.

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Zero artist Heinz Mack’s 'Objektkasten' which established a new auction record for the artist when it sold for €800,000 (£707,965) at Van Ham.

Zero heroes

Not least since the extensive retrospective shown in Berlin in 2015, considerable interest has surrounded works by members of the Zero group of artists. They regularly top the results lists at sales of contemporary art throughout Germany and Austria.

The market favourites are the founders of the group: Otto Piene, Heinz Mack and, above all, Günther Uecker, whose nail paintings regularly change hands for six- and, on occasions, seven-figure prices.

The €1.17m (£1.04m) achieved by Ketterer in December for his Zärtlicher Garten (see above) is the fourth-highest auction price for one of Uecker’s works.

The €800,000 (£707,965) paid at Van Ham in November for Mack’s ‘light sculpture’ Kleiner Urwald moves his work into a new price bracket.

The demand for Zero is not purely a continental phenomenon: in March this year Christie’s in London sold the painting Bronze and Gold IV for £320,000, the fifth-highest auction price for Piene.

The common factor in all of these prices is that they were paid for early works, from the late 1950s and early ‘60s, created during their formative years. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in 2019 – judging by recent results, there is a good chance that it will.

£1 = €1.13