Mysterious Asian Buyer Causes Sensation at Sotheby’s $368 Million Impressionist Sale

The Van Gogh was snatched up by a mysterious Asian buyer.

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Vincent Van Gogh's L'Allée des Alyscamps (1888) will be offered at Sotheby's on May 5 and is expected to achieve in excess of $40 million. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Vincent Van Gogh's L'Allée des Alyscamps (1888) will be offered at Sotheby's on May 5 and is expected to achieve in excess of $40 million. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Vincent Van Gogh, L'Allée des Alyscamps (1888).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Claude Monet, Nymphéas (1905).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Claude Monet, Le Palais Ducal (1908). .
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Claude Monet, Bassin aux nymphéas, les rosiers (n.d.).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Henri Matisse, Anémones et Grenades (1946), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Sotheby's.
Henri Matisse, Anémones et Grenades (1946).
Photo courtesy Sotheby's.
Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise
Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise.
Courtesy Sotheby's.
Pablo Picasso, Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil, 1948, oil on canvas.
Pablo Picasso, Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil (1948).
Photo: courtesy Sotheby's.

Buoyed by a $66.3-million sale of a painting by Vincent van Gogh and a $54-million Claude Monet, Sotheby’s racked up $368 million at its Impressionist and modern art evening sale on Tuesday, providing a lively start to the May auction season in New York. It was the auctioneer’s second-highest total on any auction.

The sale just squeaked by its high estimate of $366.7 million for the 64 lots. Of those, 49 found buyers, for a 78 percent success rate. Last year’s sale of similar material tallied $219 million, with fully 30 percent of works offered failing to find buyers.

“It was a solid sale, even without a lot of stars,” said New York dealer Frances Beatty, of Richard Feigen & Co. Dealer David Nash of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York and Tokyo art adviser Tetsushi Shimada concurred that it was a strong evening with busy bidders.

The night saw an unusual event: the Van Gogh, L’Allée des Alyscamps, was snatched up, after a nearly six-minute contest, by a bidder in the room. Most high-level bidders vie for their purchases by phone. He sat about halfway back in the room. In jeans and a hooded jacket, his attire was a departure from the business suit more typically worn by buyers.

A Japanese dealer we spoke with after the auction said the buyer, whom he sat next to, was speaking Chinese on the phone but denied being Chinese. He was introduced to Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith as “Robert Wu.” According to artnet News’ sources, he is one of the biggest clients of Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia.

“I haven’t seen that happen in a long time,” said Beatty. “Buyers at these sales tend to be more discreet.”

While the Van Gogh did bring a remarkable price, it didn’t inspire great love from dealers in the room. “It’s a B painting,” said Paris dealer Christian Ogier, of Galerie Sepia. “In a great Van Gogh, the brushstrokes should dance.” Japanese dealer Minoru Yasuda called the painting “second-rate.” All the same, it handily exceeded its $40-million high estimate.

The second-highest price of the evening was the $54 million for the Monet Nymphéas, well over a high estimate of $45 million. A six-and-a-half minute contest ended with the painting going to George Wachter, co-chair of Sotheby’s Old Masters department.

Three of the top lots for the evening were Monets, with Le Palais ducal fetching $23 million, just above its $20-million high estimate. His La Seine a Vétheuil brought $11.5 million, well above its $8 million high estimate.

Four lots spurred bidding contests of five minutes or more.

“I was impressed with the depth of the bidding,” said Ogier. “There were five bidders for Monet’s Nympheas, and five for the Van Gogh, bidding from China, Hong Kong, and Japan,” he added. Sotheby’s specialist Yin Zhao, who is based in New York and works with Asian clients, had a busy night, vying for several of the night’s top lots for clients by phone.

Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti accounted for two of the night’s top 10 items. About halfway through the sale, his 4-foot-high bronze figure Femme de Venise fetched $16.2 million after an epic seven-minute contest, with several specialists competing for clients by phone, to become the night’s sixth-highest sale, and its priciest sculpture. It had been tagged at up to $12 million. The winning bid came via Grégoire Billault, head of the contemporary art evening sale. Another Giacometti, a bust of his brother Diego, also sold well, commanding $12.8 million on a high estimate of just $8 million.

While the two New York auction houses typically hold their Impressionist and modern art auctions the same week, Christie’s took the unusual step of moving its sale to next week (see Why Is Christie’s Shaking Up Its Spring Auction Schedule?), suggesting possible big changes afoot at the house (see Is Christie’s Abandoning the Impressionism and Modern Art Market?).

So next week, coinciding with Frieze, we’ll see both Christie’s Impressionist and modern auction and its contemporary art sale, along with Sotheby’s and Phillips’ contemporary art sales.

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