Erratic Bidding at Sotheby’s $219 Million Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art

Lot 37 Property of a Noted Private Collector  Pablo Picasso  Tête de Marie-Thérèse  Dated Boisgeloup 4 juin XXXII (upper right) and dated mars XXXIV (upper left)  Oil on canvas  18¼ by 18¼ in.; 46.4 by 46.4 cm  Painted June 4, 1932 - March 1934 Estimate $15/20 million

Pablo Picasso
Tête de Marie-Thérèse (1932-34)
Oil on canvas
Estimate $15/20 million Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

It was an up and down night at Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and Modern art this evening, with a rare lot or two inciting fierce bidding and far exceeding expectations, while others that were apparently priced too aggressively received sparse or no bids and were left stranded on the auction block.

Overall the sale realized $219 million compared with expectations of $220.6 million to $345 million. Of 71 lots on offer, 50 of them, or 70 percent were sold. By value, the sale realized 76 percent.

The total was below the $230 million Sotheby’s realized at last May’s comparable sale, where 71 lots were sold.

The evening started out as a lively, brisk sale, with Henry Wyndham, Sotheby’s chairman of Europe keeping the pace fast and the mood humorous, frequently making jokes when bidders took too long. But by the end of the lengthy sale, much of the room had emptied out and the mood turned quieter as a succession of works failed to sell.

In a sale heavy with Picassos, the main casualty was his Tête de Marie-Thérèse (1932-34), a large, bold portrait of his lover and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. With  an estimate of $15-$20 million, it was expected to be a top seller. Wyndham opened bidding at $10 million and increased it in half-million dollar increments. But at $13 million the room had already gone silent, and it was clear there was no buyer. The hammer came down as he called out “passed” meaning “unsold.”

No one could however have predicted a better outcome than what happened for a different Picasso painting, another work from the same period focused on Marie-Thérèse, titled Le Sauvetage (1932). Wyndham opened bidding at $10 million (estimate: $14–$18 million) only to see instant and multiple bidding wars between Sotheby’s specialist Charles Moffett, acting on behalf of a tenacious client on the phone, and several other underbidders who jumped in and out of the action. The competitors included dealer Alberto Mugrabi, who was sitting in the room and bid several times around $13 million before dropping out altogether.

Wyndham said half-jokingly at $15.7 million, as he was prepared to bring down the hammer, “Anyone else want it?” At that point a new bidder, also bidding via telephone, through Impressionist department head Simon Shaw, jumped in. After what seemed a very lengthy competition, the work sold to Moffett’s buyer for a hammer price of $27 million.  With premium, the final price tonight was $31.5 million. The painting depicts the seaside rescue of Picasso’s young muse, her limp body being lifted from the water, as two active blank figures engage in a game of beach ball nearby. Last sold at Sotheby’s a decade ago, the painting brought a hefty $14.8 million in May 2004 on a $10 million to $15 million estimate.

Was Leonardo DiCaprio a buyer? We spotted the actor, along with his friend Lukas Haas, in Sotheby’s lobby before the sale, and at the beginning of the auction he was in a private glass-walled skybox, along with an entourage. But the whole group cleared out about 20 minutes into the sale, after only five lots, albeit in a jovial mood, indicating perhaps they got whatever particular work they came to Sotheby’s for.

Another expected star lot, Henri Matisse‘s La Séance du Matin (1924), drew only tepid bidding and was hammered down at $17 million, well below the estimate of $20–$30 million. It went to an Asian buyer sitting on the aisle in the middle of the sale room. The painting, depicting the morning Mediterranean light as it infused the painter’s studio in Southern France ,”boasts all of the key elements of the Nice period pictures,” according to Sotheby’s. As always, repeat auction sales provide insight into how the market for particular artists and works have fared over the years. The last time this work appeared at auction was nearly thirty years ago, at Sotheby’s New York in May 1986, when it sold for $1.1 million on an estimate of $900,000–$1.2 million.

Henri Matisse Lot 28 Property of a Private European Collector Claude Monet  Le pont japonais  Stamped with the signature (lower right)  Oil on canvas  35½ by 45¾ in.; 90 by 116.3 cm  Painted 1918-24 Estimate $12/18 million. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.

Henri Matisse La Séance du Matin (1924). Estimate: $20-$30 million.
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Giacometti sculptures figured prominently in the sale. La Place (1948), the artist’s first multifigural sculpture, sold for $13 million on an estimate of $12–$18 million (though the $11.5 million hammer price technically was below estimate). According to auction records, it was last sold in May 2000 for $4.5 million. Swiss dealer Doris Ammann, seated in the room, shelled out just under $6 million for Giacometti’s Annete d’Aprés Nature (Nu Debout), conceived in 1954 and cast in 1962. The final price exceeded the $4.5 million high estimate.

Lot 24 Property from a Private American Collection Pablo Picasso Le Sauvetage Signed Picasso (upper right) Oil on canvas 38¼ by 51¼ in. 97.2 by 130 cm Painted in November 1932. Est. $14/18 million Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's

Pablo Picasso, Le Sauvetage (1932). Est. $14–18 million.
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

A newly discovered Joan Miró found after 50 years in a vault in New York also saw intense bidding, eventually taking $8 million on an estimate of $4 million to $6 million. Miró had given the work to Diane Bouchard, the daughter of filmmaker and photographer Thomas Bouchard who the artist allowed into his circle on a busy trip to the US in the late 1940s when international attention to his work was high.

Throughout the evening buyers repeatedly drove home the point that they were in charge. Towards the end of the sale, when the large Picasso painting Femme dans un rocking chair (1956) suddenly sparked active bidding, Wyndam happily declared, “Everyone’s woken up!” But by then it was too late.