Highest ever price tag for painting sold at Czech auction

Bohumil Kubišta - 'Old Prague Motif'

Bohumil Kubišta’s painting Old Prague Motif was sold on Sunday at auction for CZK 123.6 million, the most a painting has ever sold for at a Czech art auction. It was also almost five times the starting price of CZK 25 million, which itself would have been a record for a work by Kubišta. Anna Fodor looks at why this painting garnered so much attention.

The black-and-white oil painting Old Prague Motif depicts a cityscape that recognisably looks like Prague but contains clear Cubist elements. The painter, Bohumil Kubišta, remained relatively unknown and hardly sold any paintings during his lifetime – it was only after his death that he became famous and his works started to sell for large sums.

I asked Jan Stuchlík, editor-in-chief of the internet portal ART+ which provides information on the Czech art market to a Czech and international audience, why it was precisely this painting by this artist that broke the record.

Self portrait by Bohumil Kubišta  (1904 - 1905) | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“It’s worth mentioning that Kubišta created this outstanding painting in 1911, which was a crucial period in his career. After that he changed his style, being influenced very much by artworks of masters like Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque. And importantly this was Kubišta’s first painting from this period that has ever appeared in a Czech auction, so it was a very rare piece of art.

“And overall, it’s necessary to add that Kubišta died very young, so he didn’t leave behind many paintings – before Sunday, only 14 of his artworks had appeared in Czech auctions. So this is why the momentum seen at the Sunday auction was so high.”

Kubišta was from Vlčkovice in the Hradec Králové region. In his earlier works, he was heavily influenced by Edvard Munch and painted mostly in an Expressionist style, but after the turning point that Stuchlík refers to, around 1910-11, he became much more influenced by the Cubist movement. However, he never got to fully realise his potential, as he died at the age of just 34 during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

The owner of Galerie Kodl which held Sunday’s auction, Martin Kodl, said in an interview with Art+ that he was pleased that the painting which broke the record was the work of a “genuinely Czech” artist. The previous record-holder was Divertimento II by František Kupka, which sold for CZK 90.4 million in 2020. Kupka, although a native of Opočno, spent most of his adult life in France, and Kodl says that for a long time he was listed in the catalogues as being French.

Auction of Divertimento II by František Kupka | Photo: Czech Television

Although this was the most a painting has ever sold for at a Czech auction and it happened to be a Czech painting, this is not the highest price tag a painting by a Czech artist has ever conjured - Le Jaillissement II by František Kupka sold for GBP 7,551,600 (around CZK 219 million) in a London auction organized by Sotheby's in March 2021.

When I ask Stuchlík about the identity of the winner of the painting, he tells me that the painting will remain in Czech ownership.

“When I spoke yesterday with Martin Kodl, the owner of the auction house Galerie Kodl, he was kind of secretive, but he said that the four bidders who were left in the final rounds of the auction were all very well-respected Czech collectors, and that Kubišta’s artwork will be in good hands with the winner of the auction.”