Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Sale Soars to $400 Million, Fueled by Treasures Once Owned by Condé Nast’s S.I. Newhouse
A Cézanne picture that was famously stolen and recovered in 1999 led the way at $52 million.
Christie’s kicked off the spring New York auction season at its Rockefeller Center headquarters tonight with a lively evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art that fetched $399 million—hitting the high pre-sale estimate right on the nose, and far surpassing the low estimate of $287.5 million. (The latter figure was revised from an earlier level of around $293 million after a multi-million dollar Matisse painting, estimated at between $3 million and $5 million, was withdrawn just before the sale.) Of the 63 lots offered, 54, or 86 percent, were sold. New auction records were set for works by Balthus and Pierre Bonnard.
The sale was led by several trophy works from the collection of the late publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse. Five blue-chip pieces from his estate accounted for $100.1 million—more than a fourth of the sale total. Before Christie’s opened the room to bidding, it was announced that new third-party guarantees were in place for three Newhouse lots, including a still life by Paul Cézanne and a Vincent van Gogh landscape, the eventual two top sellers of the evening.
A number of Christie’s specialists from Asia were notably active throughout the evening, bidding for clients via the phone bank. This included feverish bidding for the top lot, which was won by Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia, for a phone client. The work was a pristine still life by Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888–90), that was estimated in the region of $40 million.
Auctioneer Adrian Meyer opened the bidding at $30 million, drawing roughly half a dozen bids from various Christie’s specialists before it was hammered down to Wei’s client at $52 million. Perhaps in a sign of how determined her buyer was to win the prized painting, Wei’s first bid came after the price had already been driven up to $48 million. Including buyer’s premium, the final price was $59.3 million.
The Cézanne was once part of a notorious 1978 robbery from collector Michael Bakwin in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. The work was recovered in 1999, and that same year, S.I. Newhouse bought it for $29.5 million at Sotheby’s London.
Other star lots offered tonight from the Newhouse consignment included the van Gogh landscape, Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile, painted in Saint Rémy in 1889, which was estimated in the region of $25 million. Bidding opened at $17 million and the work was chased by at least five phone bidders before being hammered down at $33 million. Including buyer’s premium, the final price was $40 million.
Christie’s bet correctly that the hot streak for works by Amedeo Modigliani would continue, with a rare limestone sculpture, Tête (circa 1911–12), priced at $30 million to $40 million. (The work carried a third-party guarantee.) It was another blockbuster lot, albeit with a shorter bidding contest than some of the treasured paintings. Bidding opened at around $22 million and rose to $30 million before it was hammered down to a client bidding over the telephone. The final price with premium was $34.3 million.
Another intense bidding war unfolded over Modigliani’s portrait of Lunia Czechowska (à la robe noire) (1919), one of the artist’s signature paintings, depicting his subject with an elongated neck, tilted head, and almond-shaped eyes.
Further adding to its allure was the provenance: it was consigned from the collection of philanthropist, long-time publisher of The Paris Review, and renowned literary patron Drue Heinz. A drawn-out bidding contest brought the bid from $7.5 million, where Meyer opened it, all the way up to $21.5 million. It sold for a final price of $25.2 million with premium, far higher than the pre-sale estimate of $12 million to $18 million.
A new auction record was set for Balthus’s work when his painting, Thérèse sur une banquette (1939)—which once graced the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major retrospective catalogue—sold for $19 million, compared with expectations of $12 million to $18 million. The price was more than double the previous record for a work by the artist, set at Christie’s New York in November 2015 with the $9.9 million sale of Lady Abdy (1935).
One other artwork that solicited intense demand, and also resulted in a new auction record, was Pierre Bonnard’s La Terrasse ou Une terrasse à Grasse (1912), another prime piece from the Drue Heinz collection. Bidding opened at $3.8 million against expectations of $5 million to $8 million and came down to a two-way battle between trophy hunters bidding via Christie’s specialists. The final price rose to $16 million ($19.6 million with premium), well above the previous record for a work by Bonnard of $11.6 million, set at Christie’s London in February 2011.
Another top lot—though one that was oddly placed as the final lot of the sale, given its lofty $20 million to $30 million estimate—was Picasso’s portrait La Lettre (La Résponse) from 1923. It garnered the fourth-highest price of the sale, selling for $25.2 million price including premium.
The Picasso hailed from the collection of H.S.H. Princess “Titi” von Fürstenberg, which also included a Mark Rothko painting that fetched $5.4 million tonight, an unusual inclusion for an Impressionist sale, but which performed well nonetheless considering expectations of $2 million to $3 million.
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