Van Gogh’s Moody Ploughman Pulls Christie’s to a $479 Million Imp-Mod Sale, Flying Past Expectations

Though bidding felt sluggish at points, the marathon sale far exceeded presale estimates.

Vincent van Gogh's Laboruer dans un champ (1889). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

In what sometimes felt like an endless marathon of bidding, Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Rockefeller Center on Monday managed to rake in $479.3 million, a total that far exceeded the overall presale estimate of $360 million.

All 12 of the guaranteed lots, which had a combined low estimate of $63 million, were sold. Of the 68 lots on offer, 60—or 88 percent—were sold.

In what is perhaps a reflection of the number of newly wealthy buyers popping up in Asia, Christie’s specialists for the region were particularly active throughout the sale, and were frequently successful in winning pricey lots for their respective clients. This included the star painting of the night, Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un champ, St Remy (1889), which carried an unpublished estimate of $45–65 million.

Auctioneer Adrian Meyer, head of private sales for Impressionist and Modern art, took the podium for the first time at a New York Impressionist evening sale and opened the bidding at $42 million on the Van Gogh.

Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, who was on the phone with a client, wasted no time in making a soaring leap in the bidding by calling out $55 million. (At this price level, bids usually move in increments of $1–2 million.) Bidding lingered in the high $50 millions as Porter competed against specialist Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. After several smaller leaps in bidding, Wei won the work for her client with a final hammer bid of $72 million. With premium, the final price was $81.3 million, the second-highest auction price on record for Van Gogh. (Final prices include the buyer’s premium; presale estimates do not.)

Though Wei successfully secured the prize lot of the evening for her client, the collector clearly wasn’t finished. At other points, Wei used the same paddle number for the phone buyer to secure an 1884 Renoir portrait for $8.2 million and a 1969–1970 Marc Chagall painting for $1.6 million. In all, her client dropped $91 million on three works in tonight’s sale.

The Van Gogh was one of a dozen lots from the collection of Texas collectors and philanthropists Nancy Lee and Perry Bass. These lots were collectively estimated to bring between $101.5 million and $146.7 million. All were sold for a total of $143 million, well near the high end of the estimate. (Because of tonight’s performance, the Bass collection has already exceeded expectations. Three more major works will be auctioned in Wednesday evening’s postwar and contemporary sale, and another 20 or so works from the collection will be included in Christie’s day sales this week.)

Van Gogh painted the work sold tonight in August 1889 during his institutionalization in St. Remy. The picture—of a ploughman tilling a plot of land—was the view he saw through his window each morning. The work represented a significant development for the painter, who had not handled his brushes since being removed from his studio by the doctors at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole following a devastating breakdown.

Though the sale was marked by several bidding contests, the competition for the Van Gogh was by far the most spirited. Bidders set the tone by knowing what they wanted—and what they didn’t—and pursuing lots accordingly.

For instance, another expected star lot, Fernand Léger’s Contrastes de formes (1913), had an unpublished estimate of $65 million. Bidding opened at a hefty $56 million and, after Meyer coaxed out a few more $1 million increases, the work was hammered down to Porter for $62 million, or $70 million with premium. Despite what felt like a palpable lack of excitement, the price was a new auction record for a work by Léger, far surpassing the previous record of $39.2 million set in May 2008 at Sotheby’s for La femme en bleu (1912–13).



Fernand Léger's Contrastes de formes (1913). Photo courtesy of Christie's.

Fernand Léger’s Contrastes de formes (1913). Courtesy of Christie’s.


Another lot that ignited a two-way bidding war was Pablo Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline) (1954), one of three works the artist painted on October 8, 1954, of his then-new mistress—and eventually, his second wife—after they started living together. The work depicts “a dazzling, sunny day in the Midi during early autumn,” according to the Christie’s catalogue.

The painting was estimated at $20–30 million, and Meyer opened it at $12 million. Several bidders chased it, but it eventually came down to a two-way bidding war between Christie’s deputy chairman for Impressionist art, Conor Jordan, and Charmie Hamami, deputy chairman of Christie’s Southeast Asia, who won it for her client with a final bid of $32.5 million, or $36.9 million with premium.

Pablo Picasso's Femme accroupie (Jacqueline) (1954). Courtesy of Christie's.

Pablo Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline) (1954). Courtesy of Christie’s.


Regular auction-goers know it is rare for auction estimates to be adjusted upward right before an auction. (If anything, estimates are usually revised downward as a last-minute hedge against risk.) But this was not the case with a painting by Joan Miró from the Bass collection. At the start of the auction, Meyer announced that the estimate was now $20–30 million, as opposed to where it had previously been set, at $18–25 million.

It appeared to be yet another instance where buyers were setting the tone; demand was evident but hardly intense. Bidding opened at $14 million and rose through the teens before being hammered down to Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art, for $20.5 million, just squeaking by the low end of the estimate. With premium, the final price was $23.3 million.



Joan Miró, <i>Peinture</i> (1933). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Joan Miró’s Peinture (1933). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The work itself, Peinture, was one of a series of 18 large paintings with mysterious biomorphic shapes and nocturnal, dreamlike tones that the artist completed in 1933. Miró described the necessary state of receptivity for one of these paintings as “born in a state of hallucination, brought on by some jolt or other.” (He also said he had no control over how or when that state showed up.)

Claude Monet, <I>Matinée sur la Seine</I> (1897). Courtest Christie's Images, Ltd.

Claude Monet’s Matinée sur la Seine (1897). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Impressionist master Claude Monet’s Matinée sur la Seine (1897)—one of 22 canvases recording the delicate early-morning light on a river near the artist’s Giverny home—sold for $23.3 million, meeting the $15–25 million estimate.

Pablo Picasso, <i>Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne)</i> (1937) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Pablo Picasso’s Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne) (1937). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The subject matter of another high-priced lot was decidedly more somber. Picasso’s Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne), which translates to Figure of a woman inspired by the war in Spain, was painted in 1937 after an army of General Franco’s Nationalist soldiers began their assault on the Republican-held city of Málaga on the southern coast of Spain. The catalogue describes the work as “a stinging and irrevocable indictment of the fascist Nationalists, and a defiant, brazen show of support for the Spanish Republicans.” The artist gifted the work to his lover, Dora Maar. It was sold from her estate at Paris auction house Piasa in 1998, where it fetched five million (pre-euro) French francs, or $898,815.

This time, it was estimated at a far higher realm of $15–20 million, and sold for a final price of $16 million.

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