Christie’s Opens London Sales with Solid Results on Much Familiar Material

Miro, Femme et Oiseaux dans la nuit (3-5m) 5.79m GBP

Yesterday’s sale at Christie’s opened the February sales cycle with a solid—better than expected, if we’re being honest—£95.9m ($138m) made on a smattering of works, many of them retreads from previous sales. The results give credence to the idea that the art market continues to have strong demand but weak supply making it difficult for the auctions to generate momentum.

Colin Gleadell gathered the mood from some Christie’s employees both old and new:

“It wasn’t easy,” commented Guy Jennings, managing director of The Fine Art Fund Group. “I’d say the market has softened a bit. But it was steady.” Jay Vincze, the head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Christie’s London said the shortfall on last year was because last year he had two exceptional collections. “There was no chill; this was about normal for us.”

Three of the four top lots in Christie’s evening had been on the market recently. The Max Ernst that led the sale had been bought for much more money in New York a little more than four years ago. The seller took a guarantee at much lower level and the bidding did little to alleviate the loss of more than a third of the value the seller had paid. So much for distress sales bringing out the bargain hunters.

The fourth most valuable lot of the evening was a big Miro that had been hammered in London 5 and a half years ago but not paid for. This time, the work advanced another half million pounds which would not have covered Christie’s cost of capital for holding the work all these years.

On a brighter note, Leonard Lauder had sold Egon Schiele’s self portrait in the go-go years of 2007. The work was not hotly contested then. But the confident bidder was rewarded for the risk, as Katya Kazakina shows:

Schiele’s 1909 self-portrait depicting a fresh-faced youth, with long, knobby fingers, was the top lot, selling within the estimated presale range of 6 million pounds to 8 million pounds. Its consignor bought the work for 4.5 million pounds in 2007 and got a hammer price of 6.4 million pounds today, a 42 percent increase.

The excitement in the evening came from various works of German and Austrian Expressionists that seemed to reflect a rediscovery of this corner of the Modern market that has been dormant. Patrick Legant, an art advisor who specializes in the field, had this observation:

Overall I noticed quite a few “returners” to this collecting field over the last 18 months, after they had ventured out into different fields, for example, the contemporary art world; as well as new collectors who want to focus on this area in particular.

People seem to realise that the golden era of German and Austrian art of the early 20th Century has only a limited number of important and good works left in private hands and tonight offered a chance to acquire some.

The material is exciting, the historical context is fascinating, the artists are all well-established and recognised within the art historical context – and one gets a lot for one’s money. The prices are in the so-called “middle market” area and that seems to be strong at the moment and within that price range one can buy works by Kandinsky, Dix, Kirchner, Schiele etc.

Outside of those successes, there were a number of works that seemed to be fishing for bidders and failed to find any or got liquidated. Gleadell points to

[a] rather dull Giacometti painting, Buste d’homme, which had been bought just before the credit crunch for £1.6 million. Now estimated at £1.8-2.5 million, it failed to find a buyer. Making losses for the sellers were a Matisse drawing, bought in New York in November 2012 for $458,500, which now sold for £266,500 ($383,494), and a large jazzy canvas by Andre Lhote, Gipsy Bar, for which the owner paid a seemingly extravagant $2.7 million dollars back in 2007. That record still stands, as Gipsy Bar sold this time round for a more reasonable £1.1 million ($1.9 million).

Finally, even the pros are having trouble timing the Modern market. For example, Gleadell gives the back story on Salvador Dalí’s Le Voyage Fantastique which the Mugrabis had bought in 2011 for $1.9 million. Gleadell thinks the Mugrabis were trying to take advantage of Asian interest in Surrealism but the works sold at the low estimate for a figure that would give them a $200k loss.

Meanwhile, some other works by Dali, especially a series of four watercolors, one for each season, that made £1.066m in total, well above the estimates, to separate bidders.

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Sale  (artnet News)

Painting by 19-Year-Old Schiele Fetches $10.5 Million at Auction  (Bloomberg Business)