Given her own epic life story, it was perhaps no surprise that Agi Katz’s (1937-2021) career as an artist, curator and dealer should have had a special interest in art produced by refugees.
Born into a Jewish family in Budapest, she fled with her family to Transylvania when the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944.
Returning after the war, she went into exile again in 1956 when, as an 18-year-old medical student, she took part in anti-Communist demonstrations as part of the Hungarian Uprising.
After Soviet forces rolled in to suppress the revolt, Katz (née Weisz) crossed the border on foot to Austria and made her way to England with the help of the British embassy in Vienna. Here, her time as an émigrée would be long term.
Working as an economic intelligence officer in London and then marrying and raising a family with businessman Peter Katz, she later attended both Camden School of Art and Chelsea School of Art in the 1970s. She then became curator of London’s Ben Uri Gallery in 1980.
Six years later she left the museum and set up the Boundary Gallery nearby in St John’s Wood, running the dealership until 2011 and then continuing to work from home until she died in 2021.
Specialising on the works of émigré artists, Katz championed many of the leading Anglo-Jewish painters such as Morris Kestelman, Josef Herman, Mark Gertler and David Bomberg.
South London selections
Following her death, south London auction house Roseberys (25% buyer’s premium) was instructed to handle a large consignment of works from her estate.
A first tranche of 159 lots appeared in a May 2022 sale, including a £28,000 Bomberg and a £12,000 Gertler. A portrait of Agi Katz herself by Josef Herman (1911-2000), one of her favourite artists and a close friend, made £780.
More recently, a second group of works from the collection was offered at another dedicated sale on July 4.
The 60 lots, of which 37 sold, raised £45,300 including premium.
Twenty-two of the works were by Josef Herman (1911-2000) – a selection billed as ‘one of the best collections of works by the Polish/British artist to ever come to auction’. In all, 16 sold with the bidding primarily coming from UK collectors.
With a number of smaller drawings selling for under £750, the sums fetched indicated the wide range of prices that works by the prolific artist can fetch. But with a decent take-up rate (73%) and some significant interest for most of the best examples, Roseberys’ specialist William Summerfield said: “The sale showed the continued interest in the artists Agi Katz promoted and particularly in Josef Herman.”
The highest price came for a work on paper created when Herman first came to the UK as a refugee.
Refugees: Three Figures and Child, Glasgow was a 7 x 9in (18 x 23cm) ink and watercolour study from 1940-41, meaning it had been executed barely months after the artist had escaped Poland and come to Britain via France. It was a period of great creativity for the artist but also one of immense sadness as he would soon learn that his entire family died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Herman initially lived in Glasgow where he was part of a vibrant group of émigré artists, including his friends Jankel Adler and Benno Schotz.
Depicting forlorn figures sitting next to their sparse belongings, the picture here was described by the auction house as a “hugely moving scene” and reflecting “the shared experience of those fleeing the conflict and persecution of the Second World War”.
As well as the subject, date and condition driving interest, the fact that proceeds from the sale of the lot were going to The Refugee Council may also have helped generate an extra bid or two.
Estimated at £1500-2000, it was eventually knocked down at £4600, the third-highest price for a Herman work on paper according to Artprice.com. Appropriately it was bought by the Ben Uri Gallery, the museum which has focused on Jewish, refugee and immigrant contributions to British visual culture since 1900.
Among the other works from the artist’s earlier period was a painting of a miner from 1948, produced during his 11-year period living in Ystradgynlais in south Wales.
Estimated at £5000-8000, it had the highest expectations of the group of Herman works but was unsold on the day. The auction house said there were no condition problems and was hopeful it would find a new home in the near future.
Another depiction of a miner, but one with houses and a landscape in the background, met with stronger interest against a £3500-6000 estimate. A 21¼in x 2ft 5in (54 x 74cm) oil and pastel on paper, it had appeared at an exhibition titled Josef Herman: Early Works at the Boundary Gallery in 2004. It sold at £4200 to a UK private collector.
A mid-career painting titled Two Figures also drew demand. Showing two people at work bending their backs, it had previously been given the title Toil. After bringing decent competition against a £2500-5000 pitch, the oil on canvas from 1963 also went to a UK private collector at £4400.
Marks on a high
Elsewhere the Roseberys sale set the two highest prices for pictures by Margarete ‘Grete’ Marks (1899-1990).
The ceramicist and painter Marks (née Heymann) was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Cologne, Germany. After joining Walter Gropius’ celebrated Bauhaus school in 1920, she later founded the Haël ceramic workshops in Marwitz, near Berlin.
She and her husband ran the business successfully until the Nazis forced its sale in 1934. She emigrated to Britain in 1936, helped by connections at Heal’s department store in London which had been a notable client of her distinctive designs.
In England her life in exile was described by her daughter Frances as that of “an upper-class German woman living in working-class London”. She later moved to Stoke-on-Trent and became a key member of Mintons pottery.
Marks focused more fully on painting after the Second World War, exhibiting alongside artists such as Ben Nicholson and John Piper at the Redfern Gallery and Roland, Browse & Delbanco. More recently she was the subject of a retrospective at Pallant House Gallery in 2019, although her painted work has no real track record at auction.
The two pictures here, both head studies of women on paper, dated from shortly before and after Marks left Germany and seemed to capture the distinctive style of Berlin in the inter-war years.
They had both been exhibited at the The Bauhaus and Britain show at Tate Britain in 2019 and had labels for the exhibition attached to the reverse.
First up was a 16¼ x 12½in (41 x 32cm) charcoal on paper dated 1934. The Divorcee was estimated at £600-1200 but, after bringing interest on the phone and internet, it was knocked down at £2200 to a UK private buyer.
Making the same price but selling to a different UK collector, a watercolour on paper from c.1939 titled Young Woman also brought competition against the same estimate. Measuring 14½ x 8¾in (37 x 22cm), it also overshot the previous high for a picture by Marks at auction which was just £500.