Spring is here bringing a new season and a rotation in the Impressionist and Modern auction market. Classic names like Picasso and Giacometti do dominate the sales at the top end but a surprising number of works from painters like Tamara de Lempicka and Max Ernst are carrying the weight of the market’s success–or failure. So, instead of fixating on whether prices have fallen 30% or 50% from the peak, we should looking to see how successful the auction houses are in establishing new names.
First, we should look at the top lots in the sales starting with Sotheby’s Giacometti Le Chat that is estimated between $16 and $24 million. One dealer remarked that the Giacometti dogs are $30 million and the cats are generally $10 million but splitting the difference won’t bridge the gap. Christie’s Buste de Diego seems a bargain at between $4.5m and $6.5m.
These sales might end the steady drumbeat of Giacometti’s at auction but sculpture continues to take a more prominent spot in the evening sales. Christie’s has a Miro, two Moores, a Degas, a Bugatti and two Lipschitz sculptures in the sale or 14% of the lots. Sotheby’s has a Lipchitz, Archipenko, Rodin, two Miros and a magnificent Bugatti tiger estimated at between$1.5m and $2 m.
Then there are the Picassos. Sotheby’s top painting lot is Picasso’s portrait of his daughter estimated between $14m and $22m. There’s also a grey still life estimated at between $5m and $7m. Christie’s responds with it’s own Picassos: the cover lot is a Mousquetaire a la Pipe estimated at between $12m and $18m that should excite the handful of buyers who walked through John Richardson’s show at Gagosian and left needing one of their own. And, of course, there’s the other late Picasso that Julian Schnabel is selling. The title almost seems unimportant next to the provenance. And the catalogue makes much of Schnabel’s ownership.
A final round up of the top lots cannot fail to mention the very large number of Tamara de Lempicka portraits available. It is a lot of work for a market to absorb all at once. During the boom years figures like Judd and Hirst showed quantity could excite a market rather than dilute it. But these are obviously different times. Sotheby’s has put four of their several Wolfgang Joop de Lempika’s in the evening sale. One of the works, Portrait de Mademoiselle Poum Rachou, Sotheby’s previously sold in 1992 for $418,000 and now bears and estimate of $1.8m to $2.5m. Not to be overshadowed, Christie’s has put the highest estimate ($6-8m) on its Portrait de Madame M.
Deeper into Christie’s sale, there’s a lovely Jawlensky nude that is estimated at between $4m and $6.5m; a very nice Vlaminck and as well as a nice Morandi. The Degas pastel might also generate some excitement, if there is excitement to be had. Sotheby’s too has some intriguing works like the colorless Mondrian, the Munch picture of boats at a dock, the Leger, Balthus and even a nice Sisley.
Whether Christie’s can capitalize on the success of the Duchamp work in the Yves Saint Laurent-Berge sale and get their $7-9m for the Max Ernst they have will will say a lot about whether the market can renew itself with new leadership.