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Hodler masterpiece fails to set record

The "Thunersee mit Niesen" is up for sale in New York (Christie's)

A painting by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler has fetched just under $4 million (SFr5 million) at auction at Christie's in New York, dashing hopes of a record price.

This was the first time a Hodler had been auctioned in the United States and experts had been hoping the "Thunersee mit Niesen" (Lake Thun with the Niesen) would reach its asking price of up to $6 million.

Only a few other Swiss artists have so far made it to auction in the country.

The 1910 painting came under the hammer on Wednesday as part of a huge sale of impressionist and modern art, which also included works by Klimt and Kandinsky.

On Thursday Christie's announced that the sale total was almost $491 million - an art auction record - with Klimt's "Adele Bloch-Bauer II" fetching $88 million.

A Picasso, due to be sold by British music impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, was withdrawn at the last minute after disputes over ownership.

It had been hoped that the Hodler, valued at a record $4-6 million, would do well on the lucrative US market. In the end it went for $3.9 million.

"We expressly chose a valuable and large-scale painting to try and open the US market to Ferdinand Hodler's works, which are still relatively unknown in the United States," Hans-Peter Keller, art expert at the Swiss branch of Christie's in Zurich, told swissinfo before the auction.

The sale had been hailed as a posthumous acknowledgement of the Bernese artist's work, 90 years after the artist's death.

Million-dollar club

Only a few Swiss painters have so far made it into the million-dollar club, such as Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti and Felix Vallotton.

Keller, who accompanied the painting to New York, said the sale had also been intended to raise the profile of Swiss art in the US, which had over the past few years "fallen into the shadows".

Over the past few years Hodler has done well on the Swiss auction market, with canvases such as "Am Genfersee" (On Lake Geneva) and "Eiger, Mönch und Jungfrau" topping the five-million franc mark.

Added to this is the recent purchase of Hodler's "Holzfäller" (woodcutter) by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for SFr2.5 million.

But the market value of Swiss painters has yet to reach the dizzy heights of such greats as Klimt, Picasso and Pollock, who have already broken the $100-million barrier.

"The art market has registered impressive growth in the past few years, encouraged by the good development of the international economy," said Keller.

"Many collectors are benefiting from the particularly high prices to sell rare works that have been kept for a long time."

Favourite scene

The Niesen mountain was one of Hodler's favourite subjects and he painted it at least 11 times.

He painted the classic scene – since featured in works by other painters – in 1910 and it was exhibited for the first time in 1911.

The canvas's first owner, the Jewish businessman Ernst Flersheim, was forced to part with his extensive art collection during the Second World War. He died in 1944 in a German concentration camp.

"Thunersee mit Niesen" for a long time featured on the list of art considered stolen or lost during the Nazi period in Germany. It reappeared in the 1980s and was later given back to the Flersheim family heirs.

The family and the painting's former owner have announced their intention to give the proceeds of the sale to a charitable foundation.

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli

Key facts

Jackson Pollock's "No.5, 1948" was recently sold for SFr175 million, becoming the most expensive artwork in the world.
Before that the record had been held by "Adele Bloch-Bauer" by Gustav Klimt, which fetched SFr135 million.
In Swiss art, the most expensive painting sold was "Grande Femme" by Alberto Giacometti, bought in New York in 2000 for SFr25 million.

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In brief

Ferdinand Hodler was born in 1853 in the Swiss capital, Bern and started his career in an artists' studio in Thun which produced pictures for tourists.

He then attended the Academy of Art in Geneva, a city where he spent a large part of his life.

He built up a reputation for his canvases on historical or mythical themes as well as for his depictions of the countryside.

Hodler's favourite subjects included the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, Lake Thun and Lake Geneva.

The artist died in Geneva in 1918.

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