The Impressionist Pioneer vs. the Postmodern Master: Two $30 Million Paintings Will Duel at Christie’s and Sotheby’s This Fall

Christie's backs the Impressionist master, while Sotheby's is banking on the contemporary star.

Details: (L) Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild (1987). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby's. (R) Claude Monet Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917–1919). Photo: courtesy of Christie's.

Sotheby’s vs. Christie’s; Impressionism vs. contemporary art; pantheon great vs. postmodern master. Who will come out on top? That’s what the auction market will ask in November when Christie’s will offer Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1918) and Sotheby’s will auction Gerhard Richter’s abstract diptych.

Ahead of the sale, Christie’s appears to have a slight advantage, estimating their Monet to sell for between $30 million and $50 million. According to the artnet Price Database, the last time a work from the series came up at auction in 2008 it sold to Andrey Melnichenko for $80.3 million at Christie’s, a new record for the artist at the time. It remains the third most expensive work by the artist.

The Monet is one of a series of 14 “Nymphéas” paintings the artist created for his exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1918, which was lauded by critics for its close resemblance to abstraction. The work on offer is a prime example of the painter’s celebrated late work and served as a template for his 22 iconic mural-sized paintings created shortly before his death in 1926. They are now housed in Paris’s Musée de l’Orangerie.

Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917–1919). Photo: courtesy of Christie’s.

In contrast, Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1987) is expected to fetch in the region of $30 million. The German painter’s auction record stands at $46.3 million, set at Sotheby’s in 2015.

Richter’s abstract paintings—blurred and smudged using his trademark squeegee technique—are among the most desirable works from his varied oeuvre. Large-scale paintings from this phase of his career are extremely rare, with only five examples measuring over 100 inches in height and width still in private hands.

The work has been owned by the same European collection since it was purchased from Galerie Liliane & Michael Durand-Dessert in Paris in 1988, a year after it was created. It hasn’t been shown publicly in almost 30 years when it was part of the Carnegie International exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1988–89.

Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild (1987). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Based on pre-sale estimates and scarcity, the Monet will almost certainly fetch more than the Richter ahead of the sale. It’s been a decade since a comparable Monet came on the market, and abstract Richters regularly surface on the market. Nevertheless, art market observers will be debating the two houses’ tactics and reasons for backing two different artists from different eras while closely watching for any surprises in the unpredictable art auction market.

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