A Serene Monet and Several Restituted Treasures Reassure the Market at Sotheby’s $124 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale

The action assuaged market jitters after a rocky performance at Christie's Impressionist and Modern sale on Tuesday.

Sotheby’s European Chairman and auctioneer, Helena Newman fields bids at Sotheby’s Impressionist &Modern Art sale in London, 2019. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s appeared in advance to have a better sale than Christie’s in the London Impressionist and Modern sweepstakes this week—and that forecast proved correct. The estimate for Sotheby’s trim 25-lot sale on Wednesday evening was £87.5 million ($110.7 million) to £126.3 million ($159.8 million). And while it was one of the slimmest evening sales in memory, the low estimate was down 12 percent from last summer and 20 percent from 2017 compared to a much steeper drop experienced by rival Christie’s. Both houses, after all, were dealing with one week less than usual to assemble their sales due to a schedule change. But the newly sold Sotheby’s managed to sell all but two of the 25 lots offered for a £98.9 million ($124 million) total—a 13 percent increase on last June.

The main difference between Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales is that the former had higher-value lots. The sale contained three works estimated at £10 million or more (compared to two at Christie’s); seven lots in the £2 million to £10 million bracket (against Christie’s five); and four of the six top lots were guaranteed (compared to one at Christie’s).


Breaking Down the Top Lots

The sale’s Impressionist backbone was formed by three works by Monet and Pissarro—all guaranteed—from what the auction house described as a “distinguished family collection” in Argentina.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas (1908). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas (1908). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

One of these was Monet’s square Nympheas (1908), a late work in which detail and color give way to sensation as he approached, though never reached, abstraction. Not exhibited since 1962, it carried the highest estimate of any work in the sale at £25 million to £35 million ($32 million to $45 million). A much bigger and later waterlilies painting sold in the Rockefeller sale last year for $85 million (£62 million), while three similarly sized paintings from a similar date had sold in the past few years for roughly as much as the London painting’s pre-sale estimate.

Bidding for the work, however, was tepid—Yoshiko Marutani from Sotheby’s Tokyo office gave way to Simon Shaw from the New York office before the picture reached the low estimate, selling for £23.7 million ($29.8 million). (Final prices include a buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)

Another Monet from the Argentine collection, an 1885 landscape, sold below estimate on a single bid to Sotheby’s Yin Zhao, who represents Asian clients in New York, for £3.1 million ($3.9 million), and a Pissarro painting of haystacks did not quite live up to the record-breaking Monet of the same subject, selling on the low estimate at £1.5 million ($1.9 million) to a Russian phone bidder.

Camille Pissarro, Le boulevard Montmartre, fin de journée (1897). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Camille Pissarro, Le boulevard Montmartre, fin de journée (1897). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Restituted Treasures

A better Pissarro in the sale has been the subject of a restitution claim, having belonged to Swiss collectors Alfred and Gertrude Sommerguth before World War II. The collectors gave the painting to the Sturzzeneggersche Gemäldesammlung in St. Gallen for safekeeping before they fled to America. The 1897 painting of a busy Montmartre boulevard at the end of the day is from a popular series. (A larger example depicting a similar scene had been looted by the Nazis and fetched a record £19.7 million at Sotheby’s in 2014.) The underbidder then was the artist’s descendant, art advisor Joachim Pissarro. Perhaps he was among the seven phone bidders who drove the price this evening above the £3.5 million to £5 million estimate to a final £7.1 million ($9 million).

Also surviving the Argentine government’s complex export requirements was a tender Modigliani portrait of a seated boy, which carried a £16 million to £24 million estimate. Although Sotheby’s did not name the source, the painting is listed in the catalogue raisonné as having belonged to Buenos Aires collector Rafael Crespo, from whom it passed to his son and then daughter-in-law, Rose Maria Crespo, who died in 1996. Sotheby’s did note, however, that the work had been in the same family collection since 1927, when it was bought from the artist’s primary dealer Leopold Zborowski—an important, impeccable provenance for the much-faked artist. Modigliani’s paintings of men aren’t as attractive to buyers as those of women, and this work, though fresh to market, sold on its low estimate after some half-hearted Asian underbidding to a phone bidder for £18.4 million ($23 million).

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeune homme assis, les mains croisees sur les genoux (1918). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeune homme assis, les mains croisees sur les genoux (1918). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The third £10 million picture in the sale was a 1938 surrealist painting by Joan Miró of free-floating shapes in the sky painted in the colors of the Catalan flag—a reference, no doubt, to the dangerous political situation in Spain at the time. Guaranteed by a third party, Peinture (L’Air) was estimated at £10 million to £15 million, having fetched a below-estimate $10.3 million in 2010. At the time, the buyer was London dealer Alan Hobart, though Sotheby’s described the seller this evening as “a private European collection.” Dealers believe the end buyer in 2010 and seller this evening was the British furniture maker and Tory party supporter Lord Graham Kirkham. Tonight, it was guaranteed and created only a slim return for the seller after salesroom and guarantor commissions are deducted from the final price of £12 million ($13 million).

Joan Miró, Peinture (L'air) (1938). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Joan Miró, Peinture (L’air) (1938). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Modest Records

Among the other modern works topping the bill was a late Picasso, continuing a sturdy performance for that body of work at Christie’s yesterday. At Sotheby’s, his Homme a la Pipe (1968) saw strong bidding from Indian collector Cyrus Poonawalla, no doubt in London for the Royal Ascot horse races this week. But eventually, he came in second to a phone bidder who got it near the high estimate at £7.6 million ($9.62 million).

The Magritte market also looked resilient again with one phone bidder picking up two works within and above estimates. The more expensive was a standing nude, Le Magie Noire (1946), last sold in 2008 for $2.1 million and now fetching £4.2 million ($5.3 million). Also selling within estimate was his Two Girls Walking Along a Street (1954), which was bought by Brussels dealer Paolo Vedovi for £1 million ($1.27 million).

The sale achieved two records lower down the scale. Several bidders piled in for a recently restituted drawing by the symbolist Alfred Kubin that been placed by the Nazis in the State Museum Lenbachhaus, Munich, in 1938. Looking strangely like a Louise Bourgeois spider, a figure of death hovered over a secluded mountain dwelling sprinkling a fatal powdery substance over its rooftops. Clearly undervalued at £150,000 to £200,000, it attracted strong bidding from London dealer Richard Nagy, who eventually had to capitulate as the price soared to £963,000 ($1.2 million). Fifteen more restituted Kubins are on the block tomorrow during the day sales, so Nagy will have another chance.

Perhaps the best provenance of the evening was offered by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was selling a Mondrian-esque 1950s abstract painting by Swiss artist Fritz Glarner. Offered with a £450,000 to £650,000 estimate to challenge the £601,250 record for the artist set in 2013, it comfortably surpassed that, selling to a phone bidder for a new record of £759,000 ($960,325).

Although Sotheby’s hit their target, there was thin bidding on 14 of the 23 sold lots that did not rise above the low estimate. A Bonnard nude with a £800,000 low estimate was knocked down at £500,000 ($632,708). A decorative late Matisse still life was snatched up before it reached the £4 million ($5.1 million) low estimate by New York gallery Acquavella.

Nevertheless, the banks of Sotheby’s staff in attendance erupted in voluminous applause after the final hammer came down. It was the sound of relief that last night’s art market wobbles at Christie’s had been steadied.

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