Tamara de Lempicka Joins Magritte and Giacometti as the Star of Christie’s $138.9 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale

Four lots went for over $10 million.

Christie’s Impressionist & Modern sale in London, 2020. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Christie’s Impressionist & Modern sale in London, 2020. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s had amassed more lots than Sotheby’s for its opening sale in the London Impressionist and modern art series tonight: 49 versus the rival house’s 33. It also had a significantly higher £74.1 million ($108.8 million) estimate. Good buzz filled the salesroom, and by the end of the night, Christie’s sold all but 8 lots, with 4 going for over $10 million, hitting a couple of massive new artists’ records along the way. Overall, the sale realized £106.8 million ($138.9 million).

Still, compared to last February, lot numbers were down by 40 percent, the low estimate by 60.5 percent. The final total fell short of last year’s £165.6 million.

Last year, Christie’s offered a £40 million Monet waterlily painting that didn’t sell—a huge disappointment. This year, there was no similar mega-lot. As a consequence, the spotlight was taken, unexpectedly, by Tamara de Lempicka.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (1932). Sold for £16,280,000 at Christie's London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie's.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (1932). Sold for £16,280,000 at Christie’s London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Paintings by the bisexual society artist whose style was once described as “lighting by Caravaggio, tubism by Fernand Léger, and lipstick by Chanel,” used to be found in Art Deco rather than Modern art sales. But because of the appeal they have to Hollywood stars (Madonna, Barbra Streisand, et al) and the wealthy owners of period properties in Florida and the Upper East Side of New York, they now receive star billing alongside Picasso and Giacometti. Following the auction record of $13.3 million set last November for her seductive La Tunique Rose, de Lempicka’s star is ascendant; her particular price trajectory is one of the positive features of this current market.

This evening’s work—a slinky 1932 portrait of the Parisian nightclub singer Marjorie Ferry—was sold back in 1995 for $552,500. Fourteen years later it rose to $4.9 million. Tonight, it was offered at £8-12 million ($10.4–15.7 million), protected by a third party guarantee.

It didn’t need protection. Two phone bidders, one from the US and another from the chairman’s London office, slugged it out to a new record £16.3 million ($21.2 million). Not a bad return: $16 million in ten years.

Alberto Giacometti, <em>Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau)</em> (1950). Sold for £11,272,500 at Christie's London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie's.

Alberto Giacometti, Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau) (1950). Sold for £11,272,500 at Christie’s London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie’s.

On the same level with de Lempicka’s estimate was a 2-foot Giacometti lifetime cast of three standing figures that was last sold in 2008 above the estimate for £9.4 million (twice the amount of the de Lempicka in 2009).  This evening it realized only a modest mark-up, selling for a mid-estimate £11.3 million ($14.6 million) to US art advisor Nancy Whyte. There must have been some after-sale dinner chat about how de Lempicka outperformed Giacometti.

A slightly weak backbone to this section of the sale was a selection of six Picassos (Sotheby’s had none), ranging from an early 1905 sculpture to a painting from 1972, the year before his death. Four were guaranteed and five found buyers—but mostly below estimates.

Pablo Picasso, <em>Intérieur au pot de fleurs</em> (1953). Sold for £7,243,250 at Christie's London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie's.

Pablo Picasso, Intérieur au pot de fleurs (1953). Sold for £7,243,250 at Christie’s London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie’s.

None were really top drawer. Leading the group was a 1953 still life of a potted plant against a backdrop of riotous wallpaper design. Estimated at £7-10 million, it last sold in 1999 for £1.9 million and attracted phone bids from Israel and Hong Kong before selling to the chairman’s office bidder (a new private client for the market?) below estimate for £7.2 million ($9.4 million).

A later still life with a dog, from 1968, had been through the Halcyon Gallery in London and was guaranteed with a £4 million estimate. It seems the Asian bidder who bought it must have been the guarantor, as the hammer price of £3.8 million was below estimate.

George Grosz, Gefährliche Straße (1918). Sold for £9,740,250 at Christie's London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie's.

George Grosz, Gefährliche Straße (1918). Sold for £9,740,250 at Christie’s London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie’s.

An ace in Christie’s hand was a World War I painting of a bustling street scene in 1918 by the German expressionist George Grosz, with a record-beating £4.5-6.5 million estimate. The lot was particularly rare because there are only three known paintings in private hands from Grosz’s 1917-18 period, when the artist returned to Berlin from the Front.

Gehfarliche Strasse or Dangerous Street depicts war survivors in various states of confusion in a city street at night. Grosz himself looks on menacingly from the lower right of the canvas. New York dealer Richard Feigen bought it from the artist the year he died in 1959. After that, it remained in the same Swiss collection for 60 years.

Entered for sale with a guarantee, it sold to a US phone bidder for a record £9.7 million ($12.7 million). An undisclosed percentage of the upside from the reserve price, usually near the low estimate, will go to the happy guarantor.

Christie’s final advantage over its old foe was in the Surrealist section, which had 24 lots estimated at £26-39 million overall (Sotheby’s didn’t enumerate their much smaller offering). Amongst these were 7 Magrittes which accounted for nearly 75 percent of the value of the Surrealist sale, or £30.2 million.

René Magritte, A la rencontre du plaisir (1962). Sold for £18,933,750 at Christie's London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie's.

René Magritte, A la rencontre du plaisir (1962). Sold for £18,933,750 at Christie’s London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Leading this pack was a moonlit 1962 landscape with a shadowy bowler-hatted figure that made the second highest price for a Magritte, selling to Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkannen above-estimate for £18.9 million ($24.6 million)—the top lot of the evening.

Returns on Magritte continue to be bounteous as his market marches on. A gouache showing a bird in flight, Le Baiser (ca. 1957), had sold in 2015 to New York dealer David Benrimon for an upper estimate £2 million (the fifth-highest price then for a work on paper by Magritte). This evening, it sold on the low side of its estimate—but nonetheless profitably—for £2.9 million.

Also of note in the Surrealist section was a Picabia transparency painting, Ligustri, which sold to a Russian bidder above estimate for £3.5 million, as well as a late, decorative work, recently discovered in the artist’s dentist’s family collection, which sold above estimate for £877,250 to Hauser & Wirth (according to the Baer Faxt).

London dealer Daniella Luxembourg bought a Max Ernst painting of an owl above estimate for £175,000 and underbid a Dali painting of a skull that sold near the top estimate for £587,250. The latter painting last sold in 1987 for £46,000.

The Nahmad family made only one bid all evening—unsuccessfully—for an early grattage by Max Ernst which sold above estimate for £539,250, while US art advisor Mary Hoeveler stuck it out at the end to buy a painting of a romantic red-haired woman by Magritte, within estimate for £1.2 million.

Louis Anquetin, Femme à sa toilette (1889). Sold for £1,331,250 at Christie's London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie's.

Louis Anquetin, Femme à sa toilette (1889). Sold for £1,331,250 at Christie’s London on January 5, 2020. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Another redhead to shine was Louis Anquetin’s Femme a sa Toilette, which sold to a US bidder for a double-estimate £1.3 million (a record in £’s sterling, though not US dollars).

Christie’s Surrealist mastermind Olivier Camus commented afterwards that the success of his Surrealist sale was the appeal of the genre to younger generations. While unusual narrative pictures by de Lempicka and George Grosz can cause a stir, mediocre Impressionist works are in a long-term trough.

A fairly drab Matisse picture of a woman in an interior had been seen at auction three times between 1990 and 2005, the last time with a £1-1.5 million estimate. It failed to sell on each occasion. In 2006, it had found a buyer after it failed to sell again, at £480,000. This evening, it was offered by the purchaser with a £600,000 low estimate. But the market has not changed its view and the painting found its level: below estimate at £551,250.

Looking at the heyday of the Impressionist market, two Pissarros tell a story. Between 1975 and 1990, a 1901 Eragny landscape soared in price from $82,000 to $1.3 million. Then came the ’90s recession and the exit of the Japanese from the market. By 1999 the painting was still in loss territory, selling for £441,500. Twenty years on, and estimated a £1.2 million, the landscape is still trying to find its level. It did not sell tonight.

Another Pissarro, of ducks feeding at Montfoucault, escalated from £24,000 in 1968 to £462,000 in 1986. By 2007 the pace had slowed and it sold for £524,000. This evening, nearly 13 years on, it sold below estimate for £611,250. The hammer price of £500,000, minus the commission the seller has to pay Christie’s, will leave the private Asian owner out of pocket.

Asian bidding, meanwhile, was not that apparent. Apart from some underbidding on the Picassos, it seemed a shadow of its former self.


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