Focus on Hans Bellmer



When Hitler came to power, the German artist Hans BELLMER (born March 13, 1902 in Katowice, [part of the then German Federal Empire] and died February 23, 1975 in Paris) engaged in a subversive process that aimed to undermine the myth of anatomical perfection extolled by the Third Reich. He dismembered the body of his doll and rebuilt it in incongruous combinations that evoked a feeling of “uncanny strangeness” described by Freud.

In 1924, the Surrealists started focusing on the power of the unconscious and were highly influenced by the discovery of Hans Bellmer’s work. Bellmer undermined the classical view of human anatomy by projecting a “mechanics of desire” largely the product of his imaginantion. In 1933, Hans Bellmer built a doll: an artificial being made of wood and paper maché capable of anatomical reconfiguration. An unreal being, both childish and perverse. Bellmer did not expose his dolls as such during his lifetime but rather used them as inspiration for his paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. Acclaimed and adopted by the Surrealists after a visit to Paul Eluard in 1935, Bellmer settled permanently in Paris in 1938 after the death of his wife, to continue his research while working as a draftsman and printmaker.

A leading artist of the Surreal scene, Bellmer’s price index is relatively stable and has naturally followed the general increase that Surrealism has enjoyed. Since 2000 his index has risen 235%. However, despite this increase, it is clear that the artist is far from over-priced compared to his importance in the history of twentieth century art. Collectors are well aware of this and Bellmer’s market has seen some price adjustments over the last two years. On June 3, 2014, for example, Art Curial’s in Paris sold La Toupie, a painted bronze sculpture (edition of 8) for €190,000 ($258,000), doubling its high estimate and setting a new record for a sculpture by the artist. Bellmer’s work in three dimensions is particularly rare. Only 23 sculptures have been submitted to auction over the past two years. The heart of his market consists of prints, which makes him an affordable artist with his works often selling for less than $400 at auction (half of the transactions are below this threshold).

His prints represent 73% of the works in circulation on the market and they trade for between $100 and $700 on average, depending on the size, number of copies, and, of course, the quality of the drawing. Collectors are primarily interested in multiples with erotic overtones. Some of the best erotic prints now fetch several thousand dollars, like the artist’s proof entitled Erotische Kaltnadelradierungen, a drypoint work on Japan paper that sold for €3,000 ($4,140) on November 26, 2013 in Berlin (Hauff & Auvermann) and the superb heliogravure Paradis Artificiel (1949) which fetched €5,000 ($6,578) against a high estimate of €2,000 (at Cornette de Saint Cyr, Paris, on February 6, 2012). In addition there is a historical interest in acquiring paper (prints or drawings) dating from 1939 to 1940, when the artist was confined to the Camp des Milles in the south of France with Max Ernst. His work from this period is far removed from his previous concerns with anatomy and dolls, and focuses almost obsessively on brick walls, in reference to the initial purpose of the camp as a tile and brick yard.

Unique works, drawings and paintings are not very abundant but the market offers frequent opportunities for the purchase of pencil drawings for less than $5,000 … the price of a very good print. Some very accomplished drawings do nevertheless sell for more than $50,000 and two drawings enhanced with watercolor have crossed the $100,000 threshold.

Collectors have shown a clear preference for his “erotic” photography (sometimes reworked with bright colors or pastels), since a certain sale organized by Calmels-Cohens in Paris in April 2003, when three photos fetched over $100,000 for the first time. Calmels-Cohens then orchestrated the sale of André Breton’s collection and the photos of Hans Bellmer’s doll tripled (some quadrupled) their estimates. Clearly the André Breton provenance gave a special aura to the works presented and those by Bellmer benefited from the general enthusiasm. However, the records set in 2003 have been beaten twice since (both times in New York) and a new auction record of $310,000 was set on October 3, 2012 at Sotheby’s by a photo juxtaposing a ghostly self-portrait with a reconfigured doll (Self-Portrait with Die Puppe).

With an auction summit of just $310,000, Bellmer remains far behind the other champion of Surrealist photography, Man Ray, one of whose Rayographs (1922) fetched a million dollars in 2013.