Sotheby’s London Met Expectations With a $64.8 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale—But Expectations for the Category Are Softening

Auction house experts attribute the increasingly slim sale estimates to a dearth of masterpieces.

Auctioneer Helena Newman at Sotheby's London Impressionist & Modern Sale on February 4, 2020. Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

Are London’s Impressionist and Modern art sales in terminal decline? Last year, Sotheby’s evening sale carried the lowest presale estimate since 2009, and, while realizing £87.7 million ($114.2 million), at the high end of the estimate, it was down 35.5 percent from the previous winter’s £136 million ($177.1 million) evening sale. Tonight’s pre-sale low estimate was down again on the previous year’s total, by 36.7 percent, to £41.8 million ($54.2 million).

The slide has not been restricted to Sotheby’s. This evening’s sale was the first in a series of Impressionist, Modern, and Surrealist sales where combined estimates for the evening and day auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s have fallen overall by 50 percent from last year. It is not so much that values are down, although this is sometimes the case, but that high level consignments have dropped. How much of this was due to the indecision over Brexit, Brexit itself, or the threat of a Labour Government driving the wealthy out of the country during the business getting period is not clear, but in any case, the supply of masterpieces just wasn’t there, according to Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe.

While last year Newman had a £27.5 million ($35.8 million) painting by Claude Monet, her highest estimated lot this year was an £8 million to £12 million ($10.4 million to $15.6 million) neo-Impressionist Camille Pissarro painting of peasants working in a field. The estimate was the highest yet for a single canvas by Pissarro and produced the artist’s second highest price at auction. After bidding from Sotheby’s Monaco representative, Mark Armstrong, it sold to Tania Remoundos from the auction house’s London department for £13.3 million ($17.3 million).

Camille Pissarro, Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu (1887-88). Courtesy of Sotheby's Images Ltd.

Camille Pissarro, Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu (1887-88). Courtesy of Sotheby’s Images Ltd.

The Pissarro was followed by a radiant 1907 pointillist marine painting by Paul Signac, La Corne d’Or,Matin, which, like the Pissarro, had been looted by the Nazis from the Jewish collector Gaston Levy. It was assigned to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris from 2000 to 2018, when in was restituted to Levy’s heirs. The £5 million to £7 million ($6.5 million to $9.1 million) estimate was fractionally higher than for a similar view of the same subject in Constantinople that sold for £8.8 million ($13.9 million) to a Russian buyer in 2012. Today it attracted bidding from Taipei but sold elsewhere within estimate for £7.6 million ($9.9 million). Sotheby’s said about one-third of bids came this evening from Asia.

A third lot restituted to the Levy heirs, this one rescued from the Cornelius Gurlitt horde last summer, was a Signac painting of the Seine, by the Pont de Clichy. Smaller and more subdued than the Turkish subject it was estimated at £600,000 to £800,000 ($781,200 to $1 million) and pursued by Paris dealer Guillaume Duhamel before selling elsewhere for £1.3 million ($1.6 million).

Kay Sage, Journal of a Conjuror (1955). Courtesy of Sotheby's Images Ltd.

Kay Sage, Journal of a Conjuror (1955). Courtesy of Sotheby’s Images Ltd.

The sale kicked off with a dark and mysterious interior, Journal of a Conjuror by the surrealist painter Kay Sage. Painted in 1955, the year of the death of the artist’s husband, French surrealist Yves Tanguy, it was last sold for $3,200 in 1990 when it was bought by Count Alexandre de Bothuri Bathary, a French aristocrat of Transylvanian descent, (identified by Sotheby’s only as “an Important Noble collection”). Sage’s reputation has been completely overhauled since then and she reached a record £4.3 million ($5.6 million) in 2014 for a painting estimated at £70,000 to £90,000 ($91,140 to $117,180).

The Conjuror’s estimate was understandably higher, at £120,000 to £180,000 ($156,250 to $234,360), and, in spite of being fairly somber, sold on the high estimate for £225,000 ($292,342). It was followed by a late gouache composition by Tanguy that sold for £175,000 ($227,850). It is a measure of how far his reputation has also advanced that it was last sold in 1994 for £34,000 ($44,268).

Overall, there were relatively few Surrealist works at the sale, the selection of which was led by Joan Miró’s 1938 gouache Personnages et Oiseau, last at auction in 1969 when it sold to the McCrory Corporation for £30,000 ($39,000) and now sold by a Swiss collection on the high estimate for £2.4 million ($3.1 million) to New York’s Acquavella Galleries. A little ways behind was Francis Picabia’s gaudy bright green and pink image of flirtation, Sous les Olives (1925). Carrying a punchy £1.5 million $2 million) estimate, it had only recently sold in New York, in 2018, for $2.5 million, and, back on the block, sold below estimate for £1.7 million ($2.3 million). The buyer was French art consultant Christian Ogier.

Pyke Koch, Florentijnse tuin (Florentine Garden) (1938). Image courtesy of Sotheby's Images Ltd.

Pyke Koch, Florentijnse tuin (Florentine Garden) (1938). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Images Ltd.

The evening’s most unexpected appearance was the first work in a London evening sale by the Dutch magic realist Pyke Koch, whose Florentine Garden (1938), with overtones of Delvaux, carried the highest estimate yet for the artist at £200,000 to £300,000 ($260,400 to $651,000). Coming near the end of the sale it attracted several phone bids before selling for a record £555,000 ($722,600) to a buyer relaying bids on the phone to Sarah de Clercq from Sotheby’s Amsterdam office.

It’s worth mentioning a point about the guarantees. When the catalogue was printed, there was only one guarantee, for  Pissarro’s view of Le Pont Royal, which had been bought in Paris in 2018 for $1.4 million. This evening it barely broke even selling below estimate for £1.3 million ($1.7 million) to a Russian phone bidder—presumably the guarantor. But by the beginning of the sale another nine lots had been guaranteed by third parties—a now classic last-minute rush by speculative dealers to share any profits to be had.

The best performer by a mile was cubist painter Jean Metzinger’s zingy ‘Le Cycliste’ (1912). The painting carried a potentially record busting £1.5 million to £2 million ($1.8 million to $2 million) estimate—the highest yet for an artist whose record was set at $2.4 million in New York in 2007 for a more “purist” 2016 landscape. Tonight it was snapped up by a private American collector who outbid advisor Abigail Asher to buy it for a new record £3 million ($3.9 million). Other guarantors had to stick with the works they guaranteed, including some mediocre works by Vincent van Gogh.

Jean Metzinger, Le Cycliste (1912). Courtesy of Sotheby's Images Ltd.

Jean Metzinger, Le Cycliste (1912). Courtesy of Sotheby’s Images Ltd.

At the end, the slim 33-lot sale realized £49.9 million ($64.8 million) against a £41.8 million to £59.6 million estimate with just four lots going unsold—down 63.3 percent from last year. Exiting the saleroom, advisor Christopher Eykyn said that the sale, while solid, wasn’t going to set the Thames alight. “Looking ahead,” mused Guy Jennings of the Fine Art Group advisory, “I think the Imp/Mod market is getting like the Old Master market—lifted only occasionally by masterpieces, rather than on a regular basis.”

It could be one reason why Phillip Hook, Sotheby’s longstanding senior director of Impressionist and Modern art in London, announced his retirement tonight.

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