Modigliani Leads Christie’s Tough $37 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale

What a difference a day makes.

Amedeo Modigliani, Madame Hanka Zborowska (1917). Estimate: £5,000,000 - 7,000,000 Price Realized: £8,258,500. Courtesy of Christie's.

It was a tough night for Christie’s tonight as three lots were withdrawn just before their main Impressionist and modern art sale and another 12 out of 33 lots were unsold, including one of the top lots which was guaranteed by Christie’s. Few could remember when an Impressionist and modern art sale had made so little—£25.6 million ($37.5 million). Last year the equivalent total was £71.5 million ($105 million). At the press conference we were told about selective bidding, and that bidders from more countries than last year (34) registered—but where were they? We were also told that the real masterpieces were coming up in their Defining British Art sale next week.

Christie’s always looked unlikely to measure up to Sotheby’s previous evening’s sale with a very modest £38.6-56.6 million ($57-83 million) pre-sale estimate for just 36 lots of Impressionist and modern art, which was reduced to £32.9-48.8 million ($48-72 million) for 33 lots.

Like Sotheby’s, they boasted an Amedeo Modigliani portrait among the top lots, but with a lower, £5-7 million ($7-10 million) estimate. This head and shoulders portrait with the characteristically exaggerated swan neck was of Madame Hanka Zborowska, the wife of Modigliani’s dealer, Leopold Zborowska. Adding value was the fact that it had not been on the market since the 1930s when it was bought from Arthur Tooth’s gallery by one James Archdale from Birmingham, UK. Probably because of insurance costs, his descendants lent the painting to the local museum for the last 38 years. Given the relatively low estimate, at least four phone bidders made a play for it, including two from Asia, before selling for £8.3 million to an anonymous buyer.

The only guaranteed lot in the sale was a quiet, sun-drenched early street scene by Claude Monet. With no Monets, or any Impressionist paintings of note at Sotheby’s, this was probably the stand-out Impressionist painting of the week. But, estimated at £4.5 million-6.5 million ($6.6-9.6 million), it was the biggest disappointment of the sale, attracting no bids.

As occasionally happens, there was a strong suit of Picasso’s, but they failed to materialize. A three-foot musketeer painting from 1967 million carried the highest estimate at £2.8-4.8 million ($4.1-7.1 million), but it failed to sell, while a pair of very similar table top still lifes painted on the same day in 1946, one dark, the other light, from the same collection, were both withdrawn at the last minute, carrying estimates of £2-3 million ($3-4.4 million). This usually happens when there are no bids pending in the book. Also withdrawn was their top surrealist lot, René Magritte’s small 1969 oil, Le Temps Jadis, estimated at £1.4-1.8 million ($2-2.6 million).

The sale did get off to a cracking start, however, with a colorful Pierre-Auguste Renoir landscape of Rocks at L’Estaque that sold for a double estimate £1.1 million ($1.6 million).

Close behind was a tidy single owner collection of works by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky during their Bauhaus period that realized £4.7 million ($7 million). The first example, Klee’s Flowers in a Vase sold to art advisor, Mary Hoeveler, near the high estimate for £338,500 ($501,000).

But the star lot of the collection, a luminous 1929 Kandinsky, Mit und Gegen (For and Against), in which a vessel appears to float through a constellation of moons, stars, and other celestial objects, failed to sell against a £2-3 million ($3-4.4 million) estimate. Taking up the slack was Christie’s Tel Aviv representative, whose client bought two geometrical abstracts by Kandinsky for £1.3 million ($2 million) each—both near the lower estimates.

Bernard Buffet (1928-1999) Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste signed and dated 'Bernard Buffet 1991' (centre left) oil on canvas 88 3/4 x 106 1/4 in. (225.4 x 270 cm.) Painted in 1991 Estimate: £700,000 - 1,200,000 Price Realized: £1,022,500. Courtesy of Christie's.

Bernard Buffet, Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste (1991). Estimate: £700,000 – 1,200,000. Price Realized: £1,022,500. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Amongst the other German offerings was an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner pastel from his classic 1914 period, which sold within estimate, for a record £1.1 million ($1.6 million).

The only other record was for the first Bernard Buffet painting, Les Clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste. Interest from the floor was snuffed out as an anonymous phone bidder appeared with an offer within estimate for £1 million ($1.5 million).

Asian bidding was strong throughout the sale. Salome Tan Bo, from Christie’s Beijing office, bought Fernand Léger’s Deux Figures for a low estimate £1.2 million ($1.7 million), and Marc Chagall’s La Petite Flutiste, within estimate for £1.4 million ($2 million). Chaim Soutine’s Paysage du Midi was snapped up below estimate for £662,500 ($980,000) by a representative from Hong Hong on behalf of a client.

But the roll call of unsold lots makes dismal reading, although some had been on the market too recently to attract real interest. A Renoir portrait, bought in Japan last year for £1.5 million ($2.2 million), had the same price for an estimate but failed to sell. A Picasso bought in Paris six years ago for €600,750 ($680,000), found no bidders at £480,000 ($540,000).

How different it was from Sotheby’s impressive $151 million sale the night before.

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