He is known for his distinctive, somewhat enigmatic portraits which often depict ordinary people, sometimes in their daily working environment with the tools of their trade.
These archetypal portraits are characterised by oversized heads, large hands and expressive faces of almost ‘caricature’ form.
Der Bahnwӓrter (The Train Attendant), an early work exhibited back in 1927 in Berlin, which came up for auction at Lempertz in Cologne on June 19, is a typical example of Birkle’s portrait style. It shows the railway worker with exaggeratedly large head and eyes holding the hand of a small girl and standing before a level crossing barrier. In the background is a large locomotive and a signal.
The large 3ft 4in x 2ft 4in (1.03m x 71.5 cm) oil on card is signed lower left and signed and titled Albert Birkle "Der Bahnwärter"' in black chalk on the reverse.
The painting also had a noteworthy provenance. It remained with the artist until 1971 after which it went to the Neue Münchner Galerie Dr. Hiepe, in Munich and then in 1974 to a South German collection having remained since then in the same family. Condition-wise the work was described as having dented corners, some minor colour loss and with light cracquelure in parts.
Lempertz gave it an estimate of €80,000-100,000 but the painting ended up making several times that amount selling for a hammer price of €670,000/£609,090 (or €824,000/£749,090 including premium). The auction house said that this is a new auction record for the artist with the previous high, according to Artnet, being a painting sold by Villa Grisebach in Berlin in 2006 for €197,000.