Communist Party chair nets £20m in painting sale in painting sale
It couldn't have been a greater contrast: the comrades of the Communist Party of Britain were meeting on a wet Wednesday night in one of the grottier enclaves of east London, while in an auction room in Manhattan the world's leading art dealers were on a spending spree which broke world records.
Few would have guessed the unlikely link between them. But Anita Halpin, the 62-year-old stalwart and chair of the far left group, was about to become a multimillionaire.
In the last few months, unbeknown to friends and colleagues, Ms Halpin has inherited one of the most important expressionist German paintings. Yesterday, it was sold for £20.5m.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin Street Scene, a vivid vision of the claustrophobic, anxiety-inducing ebb and flow of urban life in 1913, was bought from Ms Halpin by art consultant Daniella Luxembourg on behalf of the Neue Galerie, New York.
Ms Luxembourg told the Guardian: "It's one of Kirchner's best ever works. Without the restitution claim, the probability of such a work arriving on the market is absolutely zero. There is no other painting like this in the work of Kirchner - it's so rare. The quality and rarity of it are what justify the price. When you buy a work like this, you are buying a museum piece, part of the cultural heritage of a country."
For a communist, it may seem a galling sum for 200cm by 150cm of canvas. Worse still, perhaps, for a woman with Stalinist credentials. Her inheritance was sold in a frenzied session at Christie's in New York during which Russian tycoons and American millionaires bid well through the roof of estimated sale tags. At the end of the night, the total sale had achieved $491.4m (£258m), nearly doubling the previous record of $269m at Christie's in May 1990.
There was no indication from Ms Halpin's Communist Party of Britain colleagues at their headquarters in Croydon yesterday as to how the proceeds from the sale of the Kirchner might be distributed.
General secretary Rob Griffiths began the day disputing the reports that Ms Halpin had sold the painting, alleging the misleading information had been circulated by "former communists".
The debate might prove as controversial as the acquisition of the work, which was recently transferred to Ms Halpin - as the sole surviving heir to a Jewish German shoe factory owner - under contentious Nazi restitution laws.
Lawyers for Ms Halpin, a member of the TUC general council and treasurer for the National Union of Journalists - whose husband, Kevin, is also a prominent figure in the left - have been negotiating the release of the painting with the City of Berlin Senate since 2004. For nearly 30 years the painting had hung in Berlin's Brücke Museum.
Ms Halpin's lawyers argued that her grandparents had suffered persecution under the Nazis, and were forced to hand the works over to the regime.
Alfred and Tekla Hess, the parents of Ms Halpin's father, Hans, were renowned for their support of German expressionist art in the late 1920s and early 1930s, making a succession of large purchases and frequently inviting prominent artists into their home.
The couple built one of the most comprehensive expressionist collections in the country, with more than 4,000 works of art, including 80 paintings from the period.
Last night Ms Halpin's lawyers refused to rule out that she would pursue the restitution of many of the remaining lost works.
Alfred Hess died in 1931 but five years later, at the height of Hitler's power, Tekla was visited by Gestapo agents while visiting relatives in Bavaria. In an signed affidavit from 1958, she stated: "During the late evening hours, two agents of the secret police from Nuremberg, coerced me under threat to have the pictures in the Hess collection ... returned to Germany immediately. Even though I understood fully that this threat could result in the complete loss of the entire collection, I had no choice other than to give into the pressure being exerted by this all-powerful agency of the government in the hope that my own life and that of my family would not be further jeopardised."
As Tekla hastily prepared to leave Germany, the collection scattered, and most was either lost or sold at artificially low prices. Berlin Street Scene was sent to Switzerland, sold to Frankfurt collector Carl Hagemann in 1936 and, after the war, purchased by the German state as a treasured example of the country's rich history of expressionist art.
Ms Halpin's father was awarded 75,000 Deutschmarks in the 1960s in compensation for the loss of his parents' collection, a fraction of its worth, but the largest sum that could be awarded at the time.
The decision to return Berlin Street Scene to Anita Halpin, the only surviving relative of Alfred and Tekla Hess, was taken in July. "One cannot doubt the racial persecution of the former owners," said Hans-Gerhard Husung, the art specialist for the Berlin government, announcing the transfer.
But the news was met with consternation by some figures on the Berlin art scene, who disputed Halpin's legal and moral right the masterpiece.
"Like many other German businessmen, Alfred Hess was made bankrupt by the world economic crisis of 1929," said Herr Schultz, of the influential Villa Grisebach auction house. "All he had left was a great art collection."
Amid the controversy, some German art critics predicted the saga over the so-called "most significant work of German expressionism that has ever been put up for auction" could lead to an overhaul of the way that Germany deals with art confiscated by the Nazis.
Wednesday's auction was an evening notable for restituted Nazi art, with $125m worth of spoliated works in the auction. However, the Picasso put into the sale by Andrew Lloyd-Webber to raise funds for his arts foundation was withdrawn at the 11th hour, after a judge dismissed a claim filed by Julius H Schoeps, who argues that the work was sold under duress by his great-uncle, a Jewish banker in Nazi Germany.