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Hitler sculpture brings $17.2 million at US auction

Controversial artwork ‘Him’ by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan kicks off NY auctions of modern, post-war and contemporary art.

A sculpture of a kneeling Hitler by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan has sold for a record $17.2 million at a sale kicking off the weeklong New York auctions of modern, post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

 'Him' Maurizio Cattelan is on display during the press preview of 'Bound to Fail' at Christie's auction house in New York. (AP /Mary Altaffer)
‘Him’ Maurizio Cattelan is on display during the press preview of ‘Bound to Fail’ at Christie’s auction house in New York. (AP /Mary Altaffer)

Cattelan’s controversial sculpture “Him” appears as a small child kneeling in prayer when approached from the rear. But from the front, the unmistakable likeness of Hitler comes into view.

The previous auction record for a work by Cattelan was $7.9 million.

The 2001 work, made with human hair, wax and polyester resin, is the artist’s proof from an edition of three. It was included in the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2011.

Also selling at Christie’s “Bound to Fail” themed auction Sunday night was Jeff Koons’ “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank.” The ball suspended in a water tank has sold for $15.3 million, just over its $12 million estimate.

Both works came up for auction for the first time.

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The “Bound to Fail” auction features 39 works curated by Loic Gouzer, Christie’s deputy chairman of post-war and contemporary art. The concept originated with a work by Bruce Nauman titled “Henry Moore Bound to Fail,” a cast of Nauman’s own hands bound behind his back. The sculpture sold for just under $7 million. The auction record for the artist is $9.9 million.

The themed auction “shines a spotlight on works that have purposefully pushed the envelope of what the art market would be willing to call ‘successful’ in the pursuit of creating something new and ground-breaking,” said Gouzer.

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In the case of Cattelan, the artist “defied the taboos of representation by disguising evil incarnate under a cloak of innocence,” he added.

Other works in the sale include a silkscreen by Glenn Ligon of Malcolm X with rouged cheeks and pink lips, which fetched $1 million. Also selling were Marcel Duchamp’s lithograph of a masculinized Mona Lisa with a moustache and goatee that brought in $1.2 million, Martin Kippenberger’s “Feet First, 1990” depicting a cartoonish frog hanging from a cross that garnered $1.3 million, and Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled (#175), 1987,” a landscape of decay portrayed with cupcakes that sold for $413,000.

Gouzer has curated two other successful auctions at Christie’s, including “Looking Forward to the Past” last May where Pablo Picasso’s 1955 “Women of Algiers (Version O)” sold for $179 million, setting a world record for artwork at auction.

The weeklong spring auctions of 20th century art runs through Friday.