Guarantees Spur Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale to Record £186.4 Million

It's the London branch's highest-ever result.

Claude Monet, Le Grand Canal (1908). The painting sold for £23.67 million ($35.8 million) at Sotheby's London in 2015. Courtesy Sotheby's London.

Sotheby’s opened a two-week series of Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary art sales in London on Tuesday evening, February 3, with its most ambitious Impressionist, Modern, and Surrealist sale in London to date. The Impressionist and Modern section of the sale did best, carrying a £121–164 million estimate for 52 lots and realizing £170.3 million ($255.9 million) including the buyers premium, selling 46 of those lots. The Surrealist section carried a £18–26 million estimate for 23 lots of which 18 sold for a less impressive £16.2 million ($24.3 million) total.

All told, the combined £139–190 million estimate was the highest ever for one of Sotheby’s evening sales of Impressionist and Modern art, and it realized the highest total yet for the department: £186.4 ($280 million) with a healthy 85.3 percent of lots selling.

Taking a leaf out of the New York contemporary sales’ book, Sotheby’s had guaranteed 12 lots—six of them with irrevocable bids from a third party—that had a combined low estimate of £60.4 million (see Epic Christie’s $852.9 Million Blockbuster Contemporary Art Sale Is the Highest Ever and Rothko Reels In $45 Million at Sotheby’s $343.6 Million Contemporary Evening Sale). This was the largest amount this department had ever guaranteed outside of the US, and it enabled them to secure the best material, said Helena Newman of Sotheby’s. The ploy worked as all sold for a premium-inclusive £76 million.

The 12 included two of the top-selling works by Claude Monet. The sale as a whole included no less than five Monets from different periods that all sold, fetching £55.7 million ($83.76 million) against an estimate of £42.7–60.8 million. Top lot was the only 20th century Monet of the five, a 1908 view of Le Grand Canal in Venice with a £20–30 million estimate ($30–46 million). The painting has an interesting auction history: it sold in 1989 at the height of the Impressionist boom for $11.5 million to a Japanese buyer. During the following recession, Impressionist art prices slumped and did not really recover until this century. In 2005, the painting came back and sold for $12.9 million barely recovering its price in real terms. But since then, late Monets have been making the running. All the top prices for Monet are now for late works, among them another view of Venice from the Nahmad collection, which sold in 2013 for £19.7 million, no doubt influencing the price on this one. Guaranteed with an irrevocable bid, the painting sold on one bid (presumably that of the irrevocable bidder) for £23.7 million ($35.6 million).

Claude Monet, Les peupliers à Giverny, (1887) Courtesy Sotheby's

Claude Monet, Les peupliers à Giverny, (1887)
Courtesy Sotheby’s

The 19th century Monet market has not reached these levels. The prime example here was Les Peupliers à Giverny (1887), which New York’s MoMA was selling with a £9–12 million estimate and a guarantee (see MoMA to Sell Off a Monet at Sotheby’s). It predated by four years a series of poplar paintings from which one example sold in 2011 for $22.5 million—three times the price it had made seven years earlier. The slightly smaller MoMA painting therefore looked like a bargain when it sold to a US-based collector, bidding against the magician, David Copperfield, for £10.8 million ($16.2 million).

A third Monet, L’embarcadere, an early boating scene in Holland from 1871,  last sold in 1989 to a Japanese buyer for $11 million. It held a low estimate of £7.5 million or $11.3 million for Tuesday’s sale and realized only a small gain, selling to the Acquavella Galleries for £10.2 million ($15.4 million). A fourth, Antibes vue de la Salis (1888), which last sold in 1999 for $5.3 million, saw Russian and Asian phone bidders slugging it out until the former claimed it above the estimate for £8.8 million ($13.2 million). Neither of these two were guaranteed.

Other top lots that were guaranteed were: Toulouse Lautrec’s sensuous Au lit: le baiser (1892), that was fresh to the market and sold to a European collector bidding against New York’s Maxwell Davidson Gallery within estimate for £10.8 million ($16.2 million); a Seurat crayon drawing last sold in Paris in the 1960s and that was a preparatory sketch for his painting Bathers at Agniers, which hangs at the National Gallery in London, sold at Sotheby’s on Tuesday evening for £7.7 million ($11.7 million) to an anonymous phone bidder against dealer Thomas Seydoux, a record for a work on paper by the artist; and Rodin’s posthumous cast of Le Penseur, which was bought by art advisers, Beaumont Nathan, above estimate for £6.3 million ($9.5 million). Wentworth Beaumont said that he didn’t think that posthumous Rodin castings were discriminated against by the market any more.

The top un-guaranteed lot of the sale was Matisse’s captivating Odalisque au fauteuil noir (1942), which had last sold in 2004 for £6.6 million ($12 million at the time). Like so many works coming back onto the market in this sale, the American seller was not looking for a big mark up, but in this case must have been happy with the £15.8 million ($23.8 million) given by art advisor, Nancy Whyte on behalf of an American collector, after some stern competition from London dealer Angela Neville, among others.

The most radical change in estimate from previous sales was for two Picasso sculptures from the estate of dealer, Jan Krugier, which had been offered by Christie’s in New York in 2013 with respective estimates of $5–8 million and $25–35 million but didn’t sell. Now with vastly reduced estimates of £500,000–700,000 pounds and £5–7 million, the Picasso sculpture market looked strong again. The first, a wooden sculpture of a naked boy, sold for £869,000 to Acquavella Galleries, while the second, an iron and steel maquette for the large Tête that was made for Chicago’s Civic Centre in 1964, sold to a phone bidder for £8.9 million ($13.4 million). A third Picasso sculpture, a hand painted terracotta of an owl, La Chouette, set a record for a Picasso terracotta selling to Alex Platon of Marlborough Fine Art for £1,265,000 against a £350,00–450,000 estimate.

A 14-inch Rodin bronze, Desespoire, Grand Modele, saw a steep rise in price. It had been bought in Virginia last year for $260,000 and was cleverly placed in this sale, where it sold to an Asian buyer for £785,000 ($1.2 million).

The sensation of the sale however, was the bidding battle that erupted in the room over a small Malevich self-portrait on paper that sold in London 10 years ago for £162,000 and was back with a £1–1.5 million estimate and a guaranteed irrevocable bid. Sitting in the center of the room, Cologne dealer Alex Lachman who buys for Russian banker Petr Aven, found himself in an unlikely confrontation with London dealer, Harry Blain (not known for his interest in Russian art). Blain eventually won out, mobile phone pressed to his ear, paying £5.7 million ($8.6 million)—a record for a work on paper by Malevich.

In comparison, bidding in the surrealist section of the sale was subdued. The top lot, Magritte’s L’explication sold below estimate for £3.7 million. It was followed by Le train bleue by Paul Delvaux, which went unsold at £2.2 million. The strongest results were for Oscar Dominguez’s Toro y Torero (1934-35), that had last sold in Paris in 2003 for €320,000 (approximately $350,000 at the time), but was now bought by Anthony McNerney of Gurr Johns art advisers for a mid-estimate £1.8 million ($2.7 million), and for Kurt Seligman’s Witches (1950), which tripled its estimate to sell for a record £173,000.

“Considering all the geo-political and economic factors that have been conspiring to unsettle the market, the result tonight was pretty impressive,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund. On Wednesday evening, Christie’s will try to match that.

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