Christie’s kicked off the spring auction season in New York tonight at its Rockefeller Center headquarters with a lively nightly sale of Impressionist and Modern art that fetched $399 million, hitting the high presale estimate just to the nose, and far exceeding the low estimate of $287.5 million. (The latter figure was revised from an earlier level of around $293 million after a multimillion-dollar Matisse painting, estimated at between $3 million and $5 million, was withdrawn just before the sale. ) Of the 63 lots offered, 54, or 86 percent, were sold. New auction records were set for works by Balthus and Pierre Bonnard.
The sale was led by several trophy works from the collection of the late publishing mogul SI Newhouse. Five prime pieces from his estate accounted for $100.1 million, more than a quarter of the total sale. Before Christie’s opened the auction house, it was announced that new sureties were in place for three Newhouse lots, including a still life by Paul Cézanne and a landscape by Vincent van Gogh, the two eventual top sellers in the auction. evening.
A number of Christie’s Asian specialists were particularly active throughout the evening, bidding for customers via telephone banking. This included feverish bidding for the highest lot, which was won by Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia, for a telephone customer. The work was an immaculate still life by Cézanne, Kettle and fruit (1888-1890), which was estimated in the region of $40 million.
Auctioneer Adrian Meyer opened the bidding at $30 million, attracting around half a dozen bids from various Christie’s specialists before being hammered to Wei’s client at $52 million. Perhaps in a sign of his buyer’s determination to win the prized painting, Wei’s first offer came after the price had already reached $48 million. Including the buyer’s premium, the final price was $59.3 million.
The Cézanne was once part of a notorious 1978 theft by collector Michael Bakwin in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. The work was salvaged in 1999, and that same year SI Newhouse bought it for $29.5 million at Sotheby’s London.
Other star lots offered tonight by Newhouse’s shipment included van Gogh’s landscape, Trees in the garden of the asylum, painted in Saint Rémy in 1889, estimated at around 25 million dollars. Bidding started at $17 million and work was continued by at least five bidders over the phone before being hammered at $33 million. Including the buyer’s premium, the final price was $40 million.
Christie’s bet correctly that the hot series for works by Amedeo Modigliani will continue, with a rare limestone sculpture, Head (circa 1911-1912), at a price of 30 to 40 million dollars. (The work carried a third-party warranty.) It was another blockbuster lot, but with a shorter bidding contest than some of the more valuable paintings. Bidding started at around $22 million and rose to $30 million before being hammered to a customer bidding over the phone. The final price with bounty was $34.3 million.
Another intense bidding war unfolded over Modigliani’s portrait of Lunia Czechowska (in black dress) (1919), one of the artist’s signature paintings, depicting his subject with an elongated neck, bowed head, and almond-shaped eyes.
Its provenance added to its appeal: it came from the collection of a philanthropist, long-time publisher of The Parisian magazine, and renowned literary patron Drue Heinz. An extended bidding contest brought the bid from $7.5 million, where Meyer opened it, up to $21.5 million. It sold for a final price of $25.2 million with premium, well above the pre-sale estimate of $12–18 million.
A new auction record was set for Balthus’ work when his painting, Therese on a bench (1939)—which once appeared on the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major retrospective catalog—sold for $19 million, against expectations of $12–18 million. The price was more than double the previous record for a work by the artist, set at Christie’s New York in November 2015 with the $9.9 million sale of Lady Abdy (1935).
Another work of art that has generated intense demand and also resulted in a new auction record is that of Pierre Bonnard The Terrace or A terrace in Grasse (1912), another centerpiece of the Drue Heinz collection. Bidding opened at $3.8 million against expectations of $5-8 million and ended in a two-way battle with trophy hunters bidding via specialists at Christie’s. The final price was $16 million ($19.6 million with premium), well above the previous record for a work by Bonnard of $11.6 million, set at Christie’s London in February 2011. .
Another top lot, though oddly placed as the final lot of the sale, given its high estimate of $20-30 million, was the Picasso portrait. The Letter (The Response) from 1923. It fetched the fourth-highest price at the sale, selling for $25.2 million including premium.
The Picasso was from the collection of HSH Princess “Titi” von Fürstenberg, which also included a painting by Mark Rothko that fetched $5.4 million tonight, an unusual inclusion for an Impressionist sale, but one that did well nonetheless. given expectations of $2-3 million.
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