Christie’s Marathon London to Paris Sale Brought in $212 Million—And Its Biggest Stars Were Three Powerful Female Auctioneers
Collectors paid big money for Picasso and Giacometti.
Christie’s held a marathon series of sales that lasted more than three hours in total today, starting off in London with a major offering of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art titled “20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale,” before switching countries entirely and moving the proceedings to Paris.
There, the two-part offering included the prestigious private collection of Francis Gross, much of which had not been seen in nearly three decades, as well as a focused group of works by artists closely associated with Paris, such as Pierre Soulages, Zao Wou-ki, and Jean Dubuffet.
The relay series was also notable for using no less than four separate auctioneers, two in London and two in Paris. Three of them were women.
After veteran auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen kicked things off in London, he handed the reins to Veronica Scarpati midway through. Next, Cécile Verdier and Camille de Foresta took over, handling the Gross sale and “Paris: Vente du soir” auctions, respectively.
The three sales pulled in a cumulative total of £153.6 million ($212.6 million). The main London sale realized a total of £119.3 million ($166 million). Of the 52 lots on offer (one lot, a Banksy, was withdrawn), 88 percent were sold. The London total fell right in the middle of the £93 million to £136 million presale estimate. (Final prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted; estimates do not.)
The Gross collection realized €26.5 million ($31.6 million) compared with expectations of €14 million to €21 million and 96 percent of the 24 lots found buyers.
The ensuing Paris sale featured 14 lots (two were withdrawn) and realized €13.3 million ($15.8 million), compared with a presale estimate of €9.9 million to €14.3 million.
Notably, there were no guarantees on the Paris lots but there were plenty on the London lots: a total of 17 lots were guaranteed, all of them by third parties except for one direct auction-house guarantee.
The highest lot of the sale, which had an irrevocable bid but sparked intense competition, was Picasso’s L’Étreinte (1969).
Bidding for the work opened at £9 million ($12.5 million) and the action came down to a war between department heads Giovanna Bertazzoni and Alex Rotter serving as proxies for clients. Rotter won the Picasso for his collectors with a final bid of £12.6 million ($17.5 million), or £14.7 million ($20.4 million) with premium.
Also in the top prices was an Alberto Giacometti sculpture of a falling man, Homme qui chavire (conceived in 1950 and cast by Alexis Rudier in 1951). It sold for £13.7 million ($19 million). Christie’s deputy chairman Sara Friedlander fought off competition from a London specialist to win the work for her client, bidding steadily from £10 million all the way up to the hammer price of £12.4 million ($17 million). Offered from a private collection this time around, the same work appeared at a Sotheby’s New York auction in November 1998, where it sold for $2.6 million, according to the Artnet Price Database.
Work by Wassily Kandinsky was again a highlight, as it was at Sotheby’s sale yesterday. This time, it was Noir bigarré (1935), a work with a prestigious provenance, having been owned by the Maeght family at one time, and recently having been in the same private collection since 2007. It sold for £8.8 million ($12.2 million) with premium. Bidding was relatively short, opening at £6.8 million before it hammered to a client of Bertazzoni’s for £7.8 million ($10.8 million).
A 1984 untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat with an extensive track record at auction sold today for £5.9 million ($8 million) with premium. It last sold four years ago at a Poly auction in Hong Kong, where the current consignor had acquired it for $5.7 million. Previously, at Christie’s London in 2013, it had sold for $2.8 million and earlier still, at Sotheby’s London in 2007, it sold for $1.4 million.
Another highlight of the London sale was a pristine Bridget Riley painting, Zing 2, that had been acquired directly from Beyeler Gallery in Switzerland after it was painted in 1971 and had seldom been seen since. The artist herself even came to Sotheby’s presale viewing in the London gallery to check out her long-unseen work, saying she was “thrilled” to view it in person again, a specialist said. Zing 2 sold for £3.3 million ($4.6 million), clearing the high estimate of £2.2 million and marking the second-highest auction price for Riley to date.
Bidding from Asia was robust throughout the sale, particularly for Yayoi Kusama, whose polka-dotted Pumpkin (2009) sculpture was chased by no fewer than three Hong Kong specialists on phone banks, among other bidders. It was at last sold to a client of specialist Eric Chang for £2.7 million ($3.7 million).
Bidding through Chang, a buyer won Fernand Léger’s Composition aux dominos (1947) for £718,500 ($998,000), followed several lots later by Paul Klee’s Kleines Blumenstilleben (1926) for £500,000 ($694,000).
The Gross collection, which was assembled over the course of a decade by the successful businessman and low-key collector, had not been seen since his death in 1992.
A technical glitch marred livestream viewing of the star lot of that offering, René Magritte’s classic La Vengeance (1936), on which bidding opened at €5 million ($5.9 million). Nevertheless, auctioneer Cecile Verdier remained calm under pressure, and viewers could see the bids rising rapidly through double digits on the screen. La Vengeance sold for a final price of €14.6 million ($17.4 million).
The connection was restored shortly thereafter. At a press conference following the sale, Christie’s executives acknowledged the viewing glitch but assured listeners that it had not affected any buyers’ ability to bid—an assertion that the performance of the lot surely supports.
A rare Picasso collage, Tête de femme (1941), was the second highest price of the Gross collection, realizing €3.6 million ($5 million). It sparked competition between five buyers before selling to a European collector.
A Giacometti bust, Buste d’homme (Lotar II), made €3.3 million ($3.9 million). It was a depiction of photographer Eli Lotar, the final subject ever to sit for Giacometti in his “damp, cramped studio on rue Hippolyte-Maindron,” according to Christie’s catalogue.
“We are very happy here in Paris,” Pierre Martin-Vivier, who was responsible for winning the Gross consignment, said at the post-sale press conference. “Clearly the market is happy to buy pieces that are fresh and of very good quality.”
The Paris evening sale that capped the series was led by lower-key, mostly abstract or semi-abstract works including the top work, Jean Dubuffet’s Blanchissage, Pharmacie (site urbain avec six personnages) (1962), which sold for €1.5 million ($1.8 million) to a London buyer. It was followed by a price of just over €2 million ($2.4 million) for a Pierre Soulages Peinture 162 x 114 cm, 17 avril 1972 (1972), which a London-based Christie’s specialist won for her client.
Following the sale, Bertazzoni enthused that “London and Paris are such an important duet,” noting that the dual-city set-up has meant far greater flexibility for the house both in terms of challenges presented by the pandemic, as well as concerns about Brexit.
Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti agreed.
“It means a lot to our clients when we are building these sales in London and Paris to say that we’re working together,” he said. “It’s true that they have questions about, for instance, the complexity of exporting works from E.U. to U.K. We have a unified concept: We are one platform with two different teams of auctioneers, all working together. That is a strong tool for us.”
On a final note, 25-year Christie’s vet Bertazzoni commented on “how significant it is for me to see wonderful female auctioneers on the podium during an evening sale. I’m so happy to have seen that.”
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