Christie’s Misses the Mark With a $279.3 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale, Leaving Starry Casualties in Its Wake

The sale was a disappointing opener for New York's fall auction season, with several highly touted lots failing to find buyers.

Pablo Picasso, Femme accoudée, 1921. Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2018.

The first sale of any major auction week inevitably feels like a tone-setter, despite the fact that the opening night’s tone can completely invert 24 hours later. New York’s auctioneers may be hoping for that kind of turnabout after Christie’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale came to a close on Sunday night. Although the house delivered a very respectable 85 percent sell-through rate, the total sales value of $279.3 million failed to reach the pre-sale estimate of “in excess of $304.7 million.” (Unless otherwise noted, sales values include buyer’s premium; pre-sale estimates do not.)

There was no better representative for the evening than one of the sale’s premier lots, Vincent van Gogh’s Coin de jardin avec papillons (1887), which triggered a wave of stunned murmurs in the room when it failed to sell at $30 million. Appearing at auction for the first time, the work—a strikingly dynamic garden scene—carried a pre-sale estimate in the region of $40 million. “It was an extraordinary work with an ambitious estimate,” said specialist Max Carter after the sale. “These things happen.”

Vincent van Gogh, Coin de jardin avec papillons (1887). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018.

Of the 61 lots offered in the sale, 52 found buyers. But the nine buy-ins included more expected high-fliers than just the Van Gogh. Pablo Picasso’s Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie-Thérèse) (1937), one of four works from the Sam Rose and Julie Walters collection depicting one of Picasso’s muses, passed at $14 million after an uncomfortable minute of low activity. It entered the sale with an estimate of $15 million to $20 million.

Also among the unsold lots were Claude Monet’s L’Escalier à Vétheuil (1881), which tapped out far short of its $12 million low estimate at just $7.5 million, and René Magritte’s La statue volante, which bowed out at $5 million, or $1 million beneath its low valuation.

Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-1919. Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2018.

Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-1919. Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018.

Of course, the market’s sunlight did break through the clouds for multiple lots. The top sale of the evening by value was Monet’s Le bassin aux nymphéas (1917–19). Previously sold at Christie’s in May 2000 for the then-below-estimate price of $6.8 million, the diaphanous painting entered the auction with an estimate of $30 million to $50 million. Although it nearly stalled out in the room at $22 million, a modest second wind of bidding carried the work to a $28 million hammer price—and a within-estimate $31.8 million total with buyer’s premium—secured by specialist Elaine Holt. Still, the result paled in comparison to the larger, bolder Nymphéas en fleur (circa 1914–1917) that sold at Christie’s in May for $84.7 million as a part of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection extravaganza.

Pablo Picasso, La Lampe, 1931. Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2018.

Pablo Picasso, La Lampe, 1931. Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018.

Picasso’s La Lampe (1931), the cover lot for the sale, entered the night boasting an estimate of $25 million to $35 million, and the security of a third-party guarantee. With a composition centering on a sculpture of Marie-Thérèse Walter, it sold for nearly $29.6 million with premium.

Another Monet garnered the highest-energy bidding of the night. The artist’s bravura winter landscape Effet de neige à Giverny (1893)—which auctioneer Adrien Meyer noted during the sale was a favorite of Christie’s postwar department—came on the auction market only months after occupying pride of place in the exhibition “Monet and Architecture” at London’s National Gallery. One of the works consigned from the holdings of the celebrated collector Elizabeth Stafford, the picture came equipped with a pre-sale estimate of $5 million to $8 million and a financial guarantee. After a spirited five minutes of bidding, the gavel fell at $13.5 million, boosting the work to $15.5 million with premium.

Another of the evening’s pleasant surprises was Tamara de Lempicka’s La Musicienne. Capturing an azure-dressed mandolin-player in the artist’s signature high-contrast, angular style, the large oil-on-canvas painting hammered just shy of its $8 million high estimate. Factoring in the premium, the final price of almost $9.1 million set a new world record for Lempicka.

Claude Monet, L’Escalier à Vétheuil, 1881. Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018.

The night’s other record-setting performance came in the form of Hans Arp’s Déméter, a lyrical white marble figure seemingly (and ironically, given its strong showing) suspended in mid-swoon. After hammering at $4.9 million to Impressionist and Modern specialist Olivier Camu, the premium plumped the price to $5.8 million—nearly double its $3 million high estimate.

Déméter was also one of 13 works from the collection of Herbert and Adele Klapper to change hands during the evening. (Three others were bought in.) All told, the grouping generated $41.1 million in sales, although this figure still trailed the pre-sale low estimate for the tranche of nearly $45 million.

Pablo Picasso, <i>Femme accoudée</i>, 1921. Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2018.

Pablo Picasso, Femme accoudée, 1921. Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018.

And while the Klapper collection delivered the most total sales value out of the several starry collections that furnished the auction’s theme, its counterparts were crucial in boosting the results, too. The three successful lots from the Sam Rose and Julie Walters collection brought $20.7 million, headlined by $7.7 million for Picasso’s Buste de femme (Dora Maar) (1939). A quartet of works from the collection of Elizabeth Stafford brought $20.5 million, and pieces consigned from the collection of Jerrold A. Perenchio added another $15.4 million. More works from Stafford and Perenchio will mount the block at Christie’s later this week.

Perenchio’s collection was also crucial to another bright spot for Christie’s: a pivot to Asia. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, adorning the house’s main lobby at Rockefeller Center while on consignment from the collector’s holdings, was one of 12 lots bid on or bought by Asian clients, according to Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerruti. The piece hammered at $8 million and ascended to $9.3 million with premium.

Also among the key lots destined for Asia after tonight’s sale was Monet’s aforementioned Nympheas and Picasso’s Les Saltimbanques, which hammered at $1.3 million but surpassed its $1.5 million high estimate by about $62,000 courtesy of the premium. So, if there was still a bit of gloom lingering over the sale as it concluded, some specks of optimism could be found by looking to the East.

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