Christie’s Defies Predictions of Market Chill With $138 Million Impressionist and Modern Art Sale
But it wasn't on fire either.
The sale, which included a separate catalogue for surrealist works, trailed last February’s £147 million pound sale by some margin. “It wasn’t easy,” commented Guy Jennings, managing director of The Fine Art Fund Group. “I’d say the market has softened a bit. But it was steady.” Jay Vincze, the head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Christie’s London said the shortfall on last year was because last year he had two exceptional collections. “There was no chill; this was about normal for us.”
If Christie’s were looking for some certitude in the middle market, it could be found. They had a racing start with works on paper by Pablo Picasso and Henri-Edmond Cross soaring over estimates leaving underbidders in the room—dealer Hugh Gibson and advisor Wentworth Beaumont—empty handed.
Some of the top lots were coming back to auction having sold just before the 2008 crash, so it was a test as to whether those values could be maintained. Egon Schiele’s 1909 self-portrait oil painting had previously been in Ronald Lauder’s collection until he sold it in 2007 to help pay for his acquisition of some expensive, restituted works by Gustav Klimt for the Neue Gallerie. In 2007, it sold on a single bid for £4.5 million pounds, and the buyer, a ‘private European collector,’ was hoping for a small mark-up at £6-8 million. Tuesday night, it sold for £7.2 million.
Also the property of a ‘private European collector’ was a 1925 still life by Picasso which had been bought in the same Christie’s auction for a mid-estimate of £2.8 million. Christie’s had doubled the estimate this time around, to £4-6 million, and it made a modest return, selling it for £4 million pounds to a phone bidder against the London dealer Ezra Nahmad.
Other top lots to sell were a blissfully romantic work by Marc Chagall, Les Maries de la Tour, which clipped the top estimate selling for £7 million ($10 million) to adviser Thomas Seydoux who, when he was at Christie’s, was known for his close relationships with Russian collectors. The painting last sold at auction in New York in 1991 for $600,000. And Fernand Leger’s dynamic Le Moteur, a smaller version of a painting of the same title which sold for a record $16.7 million in 2001, sold this evening to dealer, Hugh Gibson, within estimate for £5.2 million.
There was a meaty selection of early 20th century German paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Dix and more, which, except for a weak still life by Max Beckmann, sold mostly above estimates. A street scene in Murnau in 1908 by Wassily Kandinsky—not long before he shifted towards abstraction, was snapped up below estimate for £1.4 million by Amsterdam-based advisor Matthijs Erdman, and an early expressionistic landscape by Karl Schmidt-Rottluf, Windy Day, was chased by German advisor, Jorg Bertz, before selling to a phone bidder near the top end of its estimate at £1.3 million. The star of this section, though, was the relatively unknown Neue Sachlichkeit artist, Georg Scholz, with a satirical 1920s critique of small town bourgeois activities (Small Town by Day) in Germany, which quadrupled the low estimate selling to New York’s Acquavella Gallery for a record £1.2 million. Christie’s saw this coming because much the same happened with a gouache study for this painting in 2012.
On the minus side was a small, rather dull Giacometti painting, Buste d’homme, which had been bought just before the credit crunch for £1.6 million. Now estimated at £1.8-2.5 million, it failed to find a buyer. Making losses for the sellers were a Matisse drawing, bought in New York in November 2012 for $458,500, which now sold for £266,500 ($383,494), and a large jazzy canvas by Andre Lhote, Gipsy Bar, for which the owner paid a seemingly extravagant $2.7 million dollars back in 2007. That record still stands, as Gipsy Bar sold this time round for a more reasonable £1.1 million ($1.9 million).
Christie’s had made much of the promise in Asia when touring the highlights from its sale in the East last month. But bidding from Asian collectors was muted. A verdant Farm in Normandy by Paul Cezanne (1882), sold near the low estimate for £5.1 million, as did Chagall’s run-of-the-mill Violinist under the Moon, which sold for £1.8 million—both to Asian phone bidders. The strongest Asian bidding came for an early, rather awkward looking portrait of a young man by Cezanne which was estimated at £300,000, but sold for £1.2 million.
The surrealist section of the sale appeared to be a bit disappointing because past sales have been getting stronger and stronger. Christie’s has built a reputation as the leading auctioneer for surrealist art under the guidance of deputy chairman, Olivier Camu, who is also a specialist in the area. Last February, they chalked up 66 million pounds of sales for their Surrealist sale (over the £37-54 million estimate). This evening, the level of consignments was down, with a pre-sale estimate of £26-39 million, as was the total, £29.5 million. Echoing Vincze, Camu said the disparity was only due to the exceptional private collection it had for sale last year, which is not something you can depend on.
However, many of the lots that had higher estimates had already been at auction within the last five years, and were thus well known to buyers. The top lot, Max Ernst’s The Stolen Mirror, an homage to his former lover, Leonora Carrington, set a record $16.3 million (£10.3 million) when it sold for four times the lower estimate to a European collector at Christie’s New York in November 2011. That collector must have needed to sell and been prepared to take a loss as he secured a guarantee from Christie’s, most probably near the lower end of the £7-10 million estimate. But bidding was thin on Tuesday and the painting fell to a lone telephone bidder—likely the guarantor—for a premium inclusive £7.6 million.
Also taking a loss was Christie’s. Rene Magritte’s 1947 painting, Mesdesmoiselles de l’Isle Adam, which is simultaneously delightful and scary, sold at Christie’s New York in November 2014 below estimate for $4.3 million dollars. The painting had a third party guarantee, but had somehow managed to become property of Christie’s (i.e., the guarantee didn’t materialize). Now with a lower £2-3 million estimate, it sold for £2 million ($2.86 million), with Christie’s having to shoulder the difference.The other Christie’s owned property, Joan Miro’s Femme et Oiseau dans la Nuit, 1968, carried the second highest estimate of the surrealist sale at £3-5 million, down on the £4-6 million it carried in June 2010 when it sold for £5.2 million. Although it had not been guaranteed, it was not paid for. Fortunately for Christie’s, there was plenty of bidding on it the second time around, spurred first by London dealer Angela Nevill, and then by Ezra Nahmad, before it sold to a phone bidder for £5.8 million, just enough to get Christie’s out of jail.
Another of the higher valued lots that had been at auction relatively recently was Salvador Dalí’s Le Voyage Fantastique, a 1965 portrait of movie star, Raquel Welch, that blended sci-fi elements with a Lichtenstein-like benday-dot technique. This obviously appealed to the Mugrabi family of art dealers when they bought it in 2011 in New York for a mid-estimate $1.9 million. With a similar estimate of £1.2-1.8 million, it might have tempted one of the Asian buyers who have taken Dalí to heart, but it sold on a £1.2 million bid ($1.7 million), and not to an Asian collector, leaving the Mugrabis unusually short on a deal.
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