Record-Setting Schwitters Can’t Stop Christie’s Flop in London

A third of the London house’s Impressionist and modern works didn’t sell.

Kurt Schwitters, Ja - Was? - Bild. Medium: oil, paper, corrugated card, cardboard, fabric, wood and nails on board, Size: 43 x 31.5 in. / 109.2 x 80 cm., Christie's London: Tuesday, June 24, 2014, sold for: 13,970,500 GBP (US$23,710,964 ) Premium
The Christie's London Saleroom as Kurt Schwitters' Ja – Was? – Bild (‘Yes-What?-Picture’) (1920) was Hammered Down Photo: Courtesy Christie's London

The Christie’s London sale room as Kurt Schwitters’ Ja – Was? – Bild (‘Yes-What?-Picture’) (1920) was hammered down.
Photo: Courtesy Christie’s London.

If Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern sale two evenings ago was a signal that a new peak for the sector’s market is miles off, Christie’s fairly miserable Tuesday night in London indicates that a new trough might actually be closer. Only 40 of the 60 works on offer sold, for a sell-through rate of 67 percent—that’s almost unheard of in evening auctions of this level. With total sales including buyer’s premium of £85,784,000 ($146,004,368), the Christie’s sale did only marginally better by value: 71 percent. Its pre-sale expected total was £96,450,000–141,450,000.

Perhaps best illustrating the massive drop in the Impressionist and modern market was BalthusLes trois soeurs (1963-1964). The lot was touted by the house as a highlight among Tuesday evening’s results—it was the evening’s seventh-highest price, finding a buyer at £3,218,500 ($5,477,887), on the low end of its £3–4 million estimate. But, according the artnet Price Database (PDB), the very same work sold in New York just eight years ago at the market’s peak for over a million more than that sum, $6,736,000. That first time it sold—it had been a gift from the artist—it was estimated at $7–10 million. That 74-lot New York sale on November 8, 2006 made a total of $491,472,000. (Post-recession totals for the sector in New York remain at around half that.)

Despite Christie’s international head of Impressionist and modern art Jay Vincze noting many of the works “had not been seen on the market in a generation or more,” rare-to-market status didn’t seem to entice collectors Tuesday evening as much as the house had hoped. Not seen at auction for nearly 30 years, the evening’s third-best performer, Henri Matisse’s L’artiste et le modèle nu (1921), sold for £6,802,500 ($11,577,855), below its £7–10 million estimate. According to the PDB, it last sold in November 1985 at Sotheby’s for $1.15 million (around $2.5 million, in today’s dollars). Considering that handsome return, and its solid provenance—it has passed through noted collections such as those of John Quinn and Ruth and Harry Bakwin—Christie’s is likely at fault for placing the work’s estimate too high this time around.

It was one of several pieces among the top ten lots that failed to meet or, thanks to the buyer’s premium, barely squeezed above their pre-sale estimates. Femme à la voix de rossignol dans la nuit (1971) by Joan Miró sold for £4,562,500 ($7,765,375) on a £4–6 million estimate for the night’s fifth-highest result. However, when the piece was last offloaded at Sotheby’s London in June 2011 (at nearly the peak of the recession, mind you) it made £4,745,250 ($7,656,098), according to the PDB.

Paul Cézanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue des Lauves (1902-1906)—one of the artist’s last works depicting the mountain, one of his favorite motifs—eked out a result just within its predicted £3.5– 4.5 million, making £3,554,500 ($6,049,759). That’s a solid $1.53 million return on the $4.52 million it was purchased for at Christie’s New York in November 2007.

Kurt Schwitters, Ja – Was? – Bild (‘Yes-What?-Picture’) (1920)  Photo: Courtesy Christie's London

Kurt Schwitters, Ja – Was? – Bild (‘Yes-What?-Picture’) (1920).
Photo: Courtesy Christie’s London.

The night’s surprises weren’t only on the negative side, however. A new artist record was set for German artist Kurt Schwitters. His mixed media work Ja – Was? – Bild (‘Yes-What?-Picture’) from 1920 sold for a whopping £13.9 million ($23.7 million), several multiples above its £4–6 million pre-sale estimate. According to the PDB, that price is 10 times the previous Schwitters record of £1.3 million ($2 million), set just two years ago at Christie’s London’s June sale for Merzbild 9A Bild mit Damestein (L Merzbild L5) (1919). Never before seen at auction, Ja – Was? was acquired by Viktor and Marianne Langen in 1981 from Galerie Gmurzynska (then in Cologne). It has a rich exhibition history from MoMA to Tate and was exhibited numerous times at the owners’ Langen Foundation in Düsseldorf.

The Langens’ heirs (Marianne passed away in 2004) consigned 30 works across the spring auction season’s sales, citing “personal reasons.” The move caused a stir in Germany, where pundits complained that the heirs were thoughtlessly draining important works from the Rhineland and alleged that they were purely after financial gain and avoiding taxes, having left the works on public view for a requisite amount of time before selling them off.

Ten of those works were sold in New York during the May auction season. That group was headlined by Pablo Picasso’s Portrait de Femme (Dora Maar) (1942), which performed disappointingly, selling for $22,565,000 on an $25–35 million estimate.

Aside from the Schwitters, the eight remaining Langen works in last night’s Christie’s sale in London unperformed. Their sales totaled only £6,435,000 ($10,914,403) despite an estimate (again subtracting that of the Schwitters) of £8.3–12.1 million.

Of any single artist across the sale, Alberto Giacometti was most hard hit. Four of the nine Giacometti works offered didn’t sell. (In the Impressionist and modern market’s fragile state, that’s likely too many no matter how blue chip the artist.) Passed lots included the work Christie’s chose for the cover of their Impressionist and modern art catalogue, an important 1947 bronze titled La Main (1947), which was estimated to sell for between £10–15 million. Like the Matisse, it hadn’t been offered at auction since 1985. But on Tuesday night, not a single bidder would bite at its £7 million starting price, marking a major embarrassment for the house and a mood-killer for the night in general.

That said, Giacometti’s slightly less prominent but more easily recognizable piece Femme de Venise II (1956) was the evening’s second-highest-priced lot, selling for£9,042,500 ($15,390,335), respectably within its £8–12 million estimate. The rare-to-market work was purchased by its consignor (the same individual as La Main) “before 1982,” according to the house, and had never before been seen at auction.

Such a ho-hum result landing nearly at the top of the sale’s tally is not a good sign for the sector as a whole. In fragile times, Impressionist and modern art was seen as a safe investment. Even that slow-growth potential seems to now be in question. And with a booming market for contemporary art, there may be little motivation for anyone other than connoisseurs to get in the Imp/mod game.

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