The sale, which included a separate catalog for surrealist works, was slightly lower than last February’s £147million sale. “It wasn’t easy,” commented Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund Group. “I would say the market has softened a bit. But it was stable. Jay Vincze, head of the impressionist and modern art department at Christie’s London, said the shortfall from last year was due to the fact that he had two outstanding collections last year. “There was no cold; it was pretty much normal for us.
If Christie’s was looking for certainty in the middle market, it could be found. They had an early run with works on paper by Pablo Picasso and Henri-Edmond Cross beating estimates, leaving the underbidders in the room – dealer Hugh Gibson and councilor Wentworth Beaumont – empty-handed.
Some of the best lots were coming back to auction after being sold just before the crash of 2008, so it was a test of whether those values could be sustained. Egon Schiele’s 1909 self-portrait oil painting was previously part of Ronald Lauder’s collection until he sold it in 2007 to help pay for his acquisition of some expensive and returned works from Gustav Klimt for the Neue Gallerie. In 2007 it sold on a single bid for £4.5m, and the buyer, a “private European collector”, was hoping for a small markup of £6-8m. On Tuesday night it sold for £7.2m.
Also owned by a ‘private European collector’ was a 1925 Picasso still life which was bought at the same Christie’s auction for an average estimate of £2.8million. Christie’s had doubled the estimate this time around, to £4-6m, and it made a modest comeback, selling it for £4m to a telephone bidder against London dealer Ezra Nahmad.
The other top lots for sale were a wonderfully romantic work by Marc Chagall, The Marys of the Tower, who sold the highest estimate for £7 million ($10 million) to adviser Thomas Seydoux who, when at Christie’s, was known for his close relationship with Russian collectors. The painting was last sold at auction in New York in 1991 for $600,000. And the dynamics of Fernand Leger Engine, a smaller version of a painting of the same title which sold for a record $16.7 million in 2001, sold this evening to art dealer Hugh Gibson, within an estimate of $5.2 million pound sterling.
There was a meaty selection of early 20th century German paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Dix and many others, which, with the exception of a weak still life by Max Beckmann, sold out mostly above estimates. A street scene in Murnau in 1908 by Wassily Kandinsky – shortly before he turned to abstraction, was snapped up below estimate for £1.4million by the Amsterdam-based adviser Matthijs Erdman, and an early expressionist landscape by Karl Schmidt-Rottluf, windy day, was chased by German adviser, Jorg Bertz, before selling to a telephone bidder near the top of his estimate at £1.3million. The star of this section, however, was the relatively unknown Neue Sachlichkeit artist Georg Scholz, with a satirical 1920s critique of small-town bourgeois activities (Small town by day) in Germany, which quadrupled the low estimate sold to New York’s Acquavella Gallery for a record £1.2 million. Christie’s saw this coming because the same thing happened with a gouache study for this painting in 2012.
On the negative side was a small, rather dull Giacometti painting, bust of a man, which was bought just before the credit crunch for £1.6m. Now estimated at between £1.8m and £2.5m, she hasn’t found a buyer. Making losses for sellers was a drawing by Matisse, bought in New York in November 2012 for $458,500, which now sells for £266,500 ($383,494), and a large jazzy canvas by André Lhote, Gypsy Bar, for which the owner paid the seemingly extravagant sum of $2.7 million in 2007. This record still stands, as Gypsy Bar sold this time around for a more reasonable price of £1.1 million ($1.9 million).
Christie’s had made much of the promise in Asia during the highlights tour of its sale in the East last month. But bidding from Asian collectors has been subdued. A verdant Farm in Normandy by Paul Cézanne (1882), sold near the low estimate for £5.1 million, as did Chagall’s unremarkable violinist under the moon, which sold for £1.8 million, both to Asian telephone bidders. The strongest Asian bid came for an early and rather clumsy portrait of a young man by Cézanne, estimated at £300,000 but sold for £1.2million.
The surreal section of the sale seemed to be a little underwhelming as the past sales got stronger and stronger. Christie’s has forged a reputation as the leading auctioneer of surrealist art under the leadership of Olivier Camu, vice-president, also a specialist in the field. Last February, they achieved £66m in sales for their Surreal sale (on the estimated £37-54m). Tonight the level of shipments was down, with a pre-sale estimate of £26-39m, as was the total, £29.5m. Echoing Vincze, Camu said the disparity was only due to the outstanding private collection she put up for sale last year, which cannot be counted on.
However, many of the lots that had higher estimates had already been auctioned within the last five years and were therefore well known to buyers. The best lot, that of Max Ernst The stolen mirror, a tribute to his former lover, Leonora Carrington, set a record $16.3m (£10.3m) when it sold for four times the lower estimate to a European collector at Christie’s New York in November 2011. This collector must have needed to sell and was prepared to suffer a loss as he secured a guarantee from Christie’s, most likely near the lower end of the £7-10m estimate . But bidding was thin on Tuesday and the picture fell to a single telephone bidder – likely the guarantor – for a premium of £7.6million.
Christie’s also suffered a loss. Painting by René Magritte from 1947, Ladies of Isle Adam, which is both delicious and frightening, sold at Christie’s New York in November 2014 below estimate for $4.3 million. The painting had a third-party guarantee, but had somehow managed to become Christie’s property (i.e. the guarantee did not materialize). Now, with a lower estimate of £2-3m, it has sold for £2m ($2.86m), with Christie to pick up the difference.
Christie’s other property, Joan Miro’s Woman and bird at night, 1968, brought the Surreal sale’s second-highest estimate to £3.5million, down from the £4.6million it hauled in June 2010 when it sold for £5.2 million. Although it was not guaranteed, it was not paid. Fortunately for Christie’s, there was plenty of bidding the second time around, boosted first by London merchant Angela Nevill and then by Ezra Nahmad, before she was sold to a telephone bidder for £5.8million sterling, just enough to get Christie’s out of jail. .
Another of the most popular lots that had been auctioned relatively recently was that of Salvador Dalí The Fantastic Journey, a 1965 portrait of movie star, Raquel Welch, that blended sci-fi elements with a Lichtenstein-like benday-dot technique. It obviously appealed to the Mugrabi family of art dealers when they bought it in 2011 in New York for an average estimate of $1.9 million. With a similar estimate of £1.2-1.8m, it might have tempted one of the Asian buyers who took Dalí to heart, but it sold on a bid of £1.2m sterling ($1.7 million), and not to an Asian collector, leaving the Mugrabis is exceptionally short on a deal.
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