Bad Russian Deals Yield Bargains at Christie’s Auction as Magritte Breaks Record

A new record was set for René Magritte at the Impressionist and Modern art auction.

René Magritte, La corde sensible (1960). Courtesy Christie's. Estimate: £14,000,000-18,000,000 Price Realized:£14,441,348
René Magritte, La corde sensible (1960). Courtesy Christie's. Price Realized:£14.441,348

Coming in a few weeks later than usual because of Chinese New Year and half-term holidays, Christie’s kicked off the first major auction of the season last night with the British Pound at an attractive $1.242, €1.17, and Yuan 8.5. Just as the exchange rates acted as a stimulus to overseas buyers during London’s post-Brexit sales, they were set to do so again.

The evening began with 50 lots of Impressionist and Modern art with a £68.6 million/£100 million estimate that realized £94.3 million ($117 million), with only 8 percent unsold.

Four of the top lots had been identified by Bloomberg as coming from the collection of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who had, according to court papers, paid far higher prices than the estimates would suggest.

Top estimate of the sale was Paul Gauguin’s bucolic Tahitian painting, Te Fare (La maison), at £12/18 million ($15/23 million). It had last sold at auction in 1991 for the equivalent of £5.2 million in Paris before changing hands. The seller now, described by Christie’s as an “Important Private Collection,” but identified as Rybolovlev, bought it at the height of the market in 2008 for $85 million, so the Chinese telephone buyer who got it for £20.3 million (or $25.2 million) may have thought it was a bargain.

Paul Gauguin, <i>Te Fare (La maison)</i> (1892). Courtesy Christie's. Estimate: £12,000,000 - 18,000,000. Price Realized: £20,325,000

Paul Gauguin, Te Fare (La maison) (1892). Courtesy Christie’s. Price Realized: £20.325,000

This was followed by Pablo Picasso’s late painting, Joueur du flute et femme nue, bought by the seller, reportedly Rybolovlev again, for $35 million in 2010. Now estimated at £6.5/ 8.5 million ($8.2/10.7 million) it was described as the “Property of an Important Collector” (note the change of owner description). Interestingly, it was shown by Gagosian in 2016 but presumably not sold. Here it underperformed, selling to a commission bid for £4.6 million ($5.8 million).

Another work identified as a Rybolovlev sale, this time “The Property of a Private European Collection,” was Auguste Rodin’s posthumous cast of Le Baiser. However, the very recent casting (2010) may have gone against it, and it was unsold with a £4/6 million estimate. Christie’s Jay Vince would not comment on the Bloomberg story, except to say that it had not effected interest in the lots in question. “The market judges things on their merits,” he said.

Asian telephone bidding was a feature of the evening. Christie’s estimated roughly that one third of lots went each to Asia, America, and Europe, but Asia dominated the higher priced lots. It was an all Asian affair (and that includes Japan and Taiwan) for Henri Matisse’s Jeune fille anemones sur fond violet, which sold above estimate for £8.5 million ($10.5 million).

Estimate: £6,500,000 - 8,500,000 Price Realized: £4,645,000

Pablo Picasso, Joueur de flûte et femme nue (1970). Courtesy Christie’s. Price Realized: £4.645,000

Another Asian bidder using the same paddle number as for the Gauguin, bought Paul Cézanne’s rather homely painting of his mother above estimate for £4.5 million against bidding from London dealer, James Butterwick. And yet another, this time from Japan, claimed Berthe Morisot’s elegantly attired Femme et enfant au balcon—from the German Lambrecht collection—above estimate for £4.1 million. One of the most persistent underbidders of the evening was Tan Bo, a Christie’s director in Beijing.

However, anticipated bidding from Asia did not materialize for three paintings by Le Corbusier from the Heidi Weber Museum collection. Christie’s had sent them on an Asia only pre-sale tour, and Weber is said to be planning to build a Le Corbusier Center in Shanghai. Still, the works sold above the pre-sale high estimates for a combined £9.3 million, the top price of £3.3 million ($4.1 million) just a shade below the $4.6 million record set at Phillips last year. But even though that record was only achieved on a single bid by a guarantor, the price may have acted as a stimulant to the Christie’s sales.

The only guarantees in these sales were in the Surrealist section, which maintained the tempo by reaching £43.4 million ($52.9 million) against a £32.8/$44.9 million estimate with only 9 percent of lots unsold. The section was dominated by René Magritte, whose airy La corde sensible carried a guarantee and a record-breaking £14/$18 million estimate. The estimate was so punchy it knocked out any competition, and it sold to the guarantor for £14.4 million ($17.9 million). The last time it was at auction was in 1986 when it sold for $363,000.

Another Magritte coming back to auction after several decades was Le domaine d’Arnheim, an eagle shaped snow-capped mountain. In 1988 it fetched the second-highest price for a Magritte when it sold to Isy Brachot for $825,000. In 2011 it was reportedly bought by Rybolovlev for $43.5 million, far above the auction record, and now sold above the £6.5/8.5 million estimate for a more modest £10.2 million pounds ($12.7 million). A good night for Magritte ended with a summery gouache, La triomphe du mois de Mai, which sold to London dealer, Anthony Brown, mobile phone pressed to his ear, on the high estimate for £425,000.


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