Sotheby’s Shows Solid Results at $135 Million Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale

The highs, and lows, of the market are revealed in this sale.

Pablo Picasso Tête de femme (1935) Photo: courtesy Sotheby's London.
Pablo Picasso Tête de femme (1935)
Photo: courtesy Sotheby's London.
Lot 10 - Pablo Picasso TÊTE DE FEMME Estimate: £16,000,000 — 20,000,000 signed Picasso (lower left) oil on canvas 65 by 54cm. 25 5/8 by 21 1/4 in. Painted on 12th March 1935.Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.

Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (1935). Estimate: £16,000,000 — 20,000,000. 
Image: Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

Under the watchful eye of new President and CEO Tad Smith, Sotheby’s fell short of its pre-sale estimate for its opening Impressionist and Modern art sale of the year tonight.

The total of £93.7 million pounds ($135 million dollars) missed the pre-sale estimate of £97/138 million. [All sale prices quoted here include the premium, while estimates do not]. Of the 53 lots, 15—or 28%—did not sell. More worrying was that of the remaining lots, where 23 or 60.5% sold either on or below their low estimates.

Depth of bidding was rare, and while there were signs of life from a Russian contingent, there seemed to be none from Asia. An adjustment to boom level demand is clearly taking place.

The top lot, as anticipated, was Picasso’s 1935 painting ‘Tete de Femme,” which is portrait of his young lover, Marie-Therese Walter. Though not one of the best of that series, it was bought in New York in November 2013 above the estimate for $40 million. Back with a virtually unchanged estimate of £16-20 million ($23.4-29 million), it was bid up by financier, Samir Traboulsi, before selling to a private collector bidding by phone for £18.9 million ($27 million), representing a substantial loss to the seller.

Henri Matisse, La lecon de piano (1923) Photo: Sotheby's London

Henri Matisse, La leçon de piano (1923) Estimate: £12,000,000 — 18,000,000.
Photo: Sotheby’s London

Completely fresh to the market was Matisse’s gloriously colored and affectionate La Leçon de Piano (1923), that had been owned by the family of Scottish businessman Royan Middleton since he acquired it from Vincent van Gogh’s UK dealer, Alex Reid, in 1927.

Middleton owned five Matisse’s and is probably the least known and most discreet of UK collectors of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the first half of the 20th century. The painting carried the highest estimate ever placed at auction on a Matisse of £12-18 million and met with some reluctance to bid.

The stalemate in the room was only broken by the opportunistic David Nahmad who bought it for £10.8 million. After the sale he posed by it proudly for selfies taken by a younger Nahmad. #MyLatestBargain?

Sotheby’s made something of the fact that Lucian Freud owned a cast of another star lot, Rodin’s sexually-explicit bronze Iris, Messagere des Dieux, and kept it at the bottom of his bed. No doubt that has a tale or two to tell. The cast at Sotheby’s also had a tale, as it once belonged to actor Sylvester Stallone. Unfortunately for him he had parted with it before June 2007, when it was auctioned with an estimate of £400,000, and hit the jackpot with a record £4 million price. The American collector who bought this lifetime cast, one of only two known in private hands, agreed an estimate of £6-8 million, the highest that I am aware of for a Rodin bronze at auction. Again the room seemed not to respond. But first a bid from Norwegian dealer Ben Frija, and then another from a telephone, saw the two become locked in a bidding war until it finally sold to Frija for £11.6 million ($17 million). It was the most hotly-contested lot of the evening.

The biggest and quickest percentage mark up, though, had probably been taken before the auction. A Picasso drawing of Walter spotted by dealer Richard Feigen in a sale in Rio was bought last summer for $531,000. Feigen sold it on, and it appeared at Sotheby’s with a £1.2 million ($1.8 million) estimate, an indication as to what the buyer paid, and the amount for which it duly sold.

Lot 23 - Claude Monet LE PALAIS DUCAL VU DE SAINT-GEORGES MAJEUR (1908). Estimate: £12,000,000 — 18,000,000.Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.

Claude Monet, Le Palais Ducal vu de Saint-George Major (1908). Estimate: £12,000,000 — 18,000,000.
Image: Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

Other buyers in the room included Jose Mugrabi who, having been outbid on a languorous nude by Max Beckmann, pounced on a turn-of-the-century pastel rape scene, L’Entreinte forcee, by Picasso, which he bought below estimate for £725,000; and London dealer, Danny Katz, who spied a Gauguin still life that had sold back in 1989 to Japan for £2.3 million, and which he bought for £2.4 million. Also successful was London dealer, Simon Theobald, who was more than pleased to secure Leger’s Elements Mechaniques (1919), below estimate for £3.3 million, and Angela Nevill who bought a Rembrandt Bugatti bronze leopard on the low estimate for £545,000.

Good Impressionist painting was thin on the ground, however. Leading the group was a shimmering Monet of Venice with the Grand Canal and the Palais Ducal almost disappearing in a haze of sunlight. The painting had been squirreled away by the Nahmad family after they acquired it privately in 1998, but has been exhibited as part of their collection in recent years. Estimated at £12-18 million it elicited only one telephone bid and sold also for £11.6 million—just enough to pay for the Matisse.

Sotheby’s Surrealist section was the most successful of the evening sales this week in terms of sell-through rates, garnering 13—or 81%—of the 16 lots offered. The category also met its pre-sale estimate realizing £14.9 million against the pre-sale estimate of £11.9-16.5 million.

Auguste Rodin Iris, Messagère des dieux (cast between 1902-5) Photo courtesy Sotheby's London

Auguste Rodin, Iris, Messagère des dieux (cast between 1902-5). Estimate: £6,000,000 — 8,000,000.
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

With much stronger bidding, this section of the sale boasted several record prices. A rare 1919 mechanical drawing, Ventilateur, by Picabia from his Dada period, set a record for a work on paper by the artist, selling for £2.4 million. A bigger record was achieved for Paul Delvaux when his 1936 canvas Le Miroir, long thought destroyed during the Second World War, which sold to a dealer on the telephone for £7.3 million. The painting sold in 1999 for a record £3.2 million to the American collector who was selling tonight, and was granted the highest ever estimate for a work by Delvaux of £5.5-7.5 million.

And records were on the cards for Surrealist sculptures as well. Salvador Dali’s Venus de Milo aux Tiroirs, conceived in plaster during his surrealist prime in 1936, and cast in 1964 in an edition of six, from which this was an example, only sold on the low estimate to a phone bidder for £485,000, but was just short of a record. The seller, Swiss collector Madame Georges Marci, bought it nine years ago for £240,000, so I doubt she will be complaining. However, it proves to be a more interesting work than the later work which does hold the record.

In the art market, taste rules, even when it is bad.

Salvador Dalí VÉNUS DE MILO AUX TIROIRS (Executed in plaster in 1936; cast in bronze in 1964). Estimate: £400,000 — 600,000. Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.

Salvador Dalí, Venus de Milo Aux Tiroirs (Executed in plaster in 1936; cast in bronze in 1964). Estimate: £400,000 — 600,000.
Image: Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

A record was also in the offing for a sculpture by Man Ray. Another Venus, Venus Restauree, was similarly conceived in 1936, but without legs or a head, and bound in rope. It was later made into an edition of 10 in 1971. Another one from the edition held the Man Ray sculpture record at £315,328 until tonight’s example sold, albeit below the estimate, for £389,000.

By all means, the sale ended on a high note. But by then half the room had emptied out. For those that left at the end of the Impressionist and Modern section, the memory will be of too little bidding for too many indifferent pictures, lightened by the occasional bidding contest. What will be interesting to see is if this will be judged just a mediocre sale or a softening of the market. Next week’s contemporary art sales could provide one clue. Another will be the consignment levels to the New York sale in May.

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