Magritte's 'bowler-hatted man' masterpiece could fetch US$38m at Christie's London

This year marks the centenary of the Surrealist Manifesto, a 1924 text penned by André Breton that stamped the official birth of the art movement.

In celebration of the occasion, Christie's is offering Belgium master René Magritte's L'ami intime (The Intimate Friend) (1958) as the leading highlight of its annual auction, The Art of The Surreal Evening Sale, on 7 March in London. It is estimated to sell for between £30 and 50 million (US$38 and 63 million). 

One of the finest of the artist’s iconic and mysterious paintings of the man in the bowler hat, the work comes from the collection of Gilbert Kaplan – the late founder of Institutional Investor and international conductor – and his wife Lena. For decades, the couple kept the work largely private, only showcasing it once to the public in a 1998 exhibition in Brussels. 

Ahead of the sale, the piece will be displayed in Hong Kong from 21 to 23 February, before returning to London from 1 to 7 March. 

René Magritte (1898-1967) | L'ami intime (The Intimate Friend), Oil on canvas
Created in 1958
Estimate: £30,000,000 - 50,000,000 (US$38 - 63 million)

Auction House: Christie's London
Sale: The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale
Date and Time: 7 March 2024 | 7pm (London local time)
Pre-sale exhibition:

  • Hong Kong | 21 - 23 February 2024
  • London | 1 - 7 March 2024

One of the key figures in the Surrealist movement, René Magritte is famed for his engaging images that combine everyday objects in whimsical and thought-provoking contexts – in a world of paradoxes, Magritte seeks to question the experience of perception within painting.

His auction record-setter, L’Empire des lumières (The Empire of Light) (1961), for instance, depicts the conflicting image of a nocturnal landscape beneath a sunlit sky, evoking the underlying conciliation and harmony of opposing ideas.

The largest horizontal canvas in the 17-piece series, that work sold for £59.4 million (around US$78.4 million) at Sotheby's London in 2022. 

René Magritte | L’Empire des lumieres (1961) | 114.5 x 146 cm | Sold: £59,422,000, Sotheby's London, 2022

René Magritte, one of the key figures in the Surrealist movement

Last publicly displayed at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, the present L'ami intime (The Intimate Friend) portrays the enigmatic bowler-hatted man, Magritte's faceless "everyman" and one of the most iconic images of art. 

Gazing out the window onto a mountainous landscape and a cloud-filled sky, he appears oblivious to the strange sight of a baguette and wine glass floating in mid-air behind him.  

One mainstream explanation for the meaning behind Magritte's totemic figure is that he functions as a symbol of the bourgeois and metropolitan ordinariness; his smart uniform and typically bourgeois attire indicate a mundane humanity. 

Le fils de l'homme (Son of Man) (1964) | 119 x 89 cm | Sold: US$5,392,500, Christie's New York (The Harry Torczyner sale), 1998

Some others, on the other hand, interpret the motif as Magritte's self-image, though it is widely rejected by scholars and experts. Like other members of his Surrealist circle in Brussels, Magritte chose to dress and live in a deliberately staid and bourgeois manner, and the bowler hat was a key part of his conservative costume.

But since the 1950s, Magritte began to multiply the figure into a banal collective, which came to represent more of the anonymous, faceless masses and the everyday working man. 

Le mois des vendanges (The month of the grape harvest) (1959) | 127.6 x 160 cm | Sold: £10,002,500, Christie's London, 2021

The Intimate Friend was acquired by Gilbert Kaplan and Lena shortly after it went for a hammer price of £90,000 back in a 1980 auction at Sotheby's London. 

Initially trained as an economist, Kaplan founded the monthly magazine Institutional Investor in 1967 when he was 26 years old. In 1984, he sold the company for an estimated US$70 million but stayed involved as chairman and editor-in-chief until the early 1990s. 

Also a keen collector of Surrealist art, Kaplan had assembled one of the world's most comprehensive Surrealist print collections, including works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Max Ernst. After his death in 2016, 283 pieces from his trove were sold at Christie's New York, totalling nearly US$10.4 million. 

Notably, in 1982 he took part in the publication of a catalogue raisonné of Magritte’s prints alongside dealer Timothy Baum, the cover of which is the Les Bijoux Indiscrets in his collection. 

Kaplan helped prepare a catalogue raisonné of Magritte’s prints

Kaplan is widely recognized as an international symphony conductor

But other than an entrepreneur and a collector, Kaplan is perhaps more known as an international symphony conductor, the second career he accidentally kicked off after he conducted Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony, at the Lincoln Center in New York in celebration of Institutional Investor's 15th anniversary and his own 40th birthday. 

The debut was well received and following the sale of his company, he became a globe-trotting conductor of Mahler's Second Symphony – and only that symphony, which had held him in thrall for years. A Mahler die-hard fan, he first started learning conducting in 1981 and would go on to give more than 100 live performances worldwide.

The passion he had for Mahler also led him to collect an Auguste Rodin bust of the Austrian Jewish composer and conductor and his Second Symphony manuscript, the latter having set an auction record for a music manuscript when it fetched £4.5 million at Sotheby's London in 2016. 

Regarding his avid love for Mahler, Kaplan once said if surrealism is defined as "that point where the real and unreal meet, there is much in Mahler’s music that can meet this definition."