Over the last several years, Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale has been plagued by overly aggressive estimates, failed top lots and an overall absence of vigor. So it is particularly unexpected that when the auction house has bolstered its sale with three strong collections and achieved a substantially higher sale total than any time on the last three years that it should come across as “tepid.”
The reporters who covered the sale and dealers who commented were universal in their expression of boredom and disappointment that the top lots had little in the way of active or aggressive bidding despite predictions that Chinese collectors were storming the citadel. Here’s Katya Kazakina’s conversation with one well-known dealer after the Huguette Clark Monet sold below end of the estimate range:
Although sales were strong, “the energy was a bit off,” New York art dealer Christophe van de Weghe said as he exited the midtown Manhattan room. “People are selective.”
Monet’s painting of a pond studded with water lilies fetched $24 million, or $27 million with buyer’s fees, compared to the presale estimate of $25 million to $35 million. The result was surprising, van de Weghe said, considering the work’s history and condition.
“The work was painted on a panel, not a canvas, and people don’t like that,” van de Weghe said about why he thought the purple-robed Maar didn’t stir stronger interest.
Gallerist’s Dan Duray was quick to defend the auctioneer, Andreas Rumbler, from any accusations of indifference:
The tepid bidding was not due to any lack of effort from Mr. Rumbler, who allowed long moments to pass between bids, until the 53th and final lot hammered down at an hour and forty minutes into the sale, for an average of about two minutes per lot. Mr. Rumbler even took a bid from the room on a 1959 Marc Chagall—deep into the sale at lot 34—after the hammer had clearly fallen for a phone bidder. Still, Mr. Rumbler managed to squeeze out another $350,000 in the additional bidding round, and the lot sold for $2.65 million at hammer. After the sale two blue-chip directors showed a reporter the doodles they had made on that lot’s picture in the catalogue.
Picasso played an important role—perhaps too important—in the sale accounting for a third of the total, as Judd Tully shows in his report. “one always wonders how so many Picasso works can be absorbed by the market in a single evening.”
Returning to the Picasso front, of which 13 works were on offer and all but one sold, the high-spirited “Mangeuse de pasteque et homme ecrivant” (lot 21), from May 1965 and a trophy entry from the Edgar Bronfman estate, fetched $8,005,000 (est. $7-10 million). The dozen works by Picasso that sold contributed $88,941,000 to the overall evening total. […] Picasso firepower continued throughout the evening, weaving through different periods and styles, such as the almost minimal (lot 27) “Nature morte au filet de peche,” from 1925, that sold for $9,013,000 (est. $6-8 million) and the more ambitious and darkly haunting “Portrait de femme (Dora Maar)” (lot 29), from 1942, that made $22,565,000 (est. $25-35 million), selling to Chicago dealer Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery.
That last one, the Dora Maar, seems to capture what’s going on in the market:
“The Langen Picasso was the bargain of the sale in my eyes,” said London-based art adviser Patrick Legant.
Eileen Kinsella at Artnet put her finger on the issue. Time was not in the seller’s favor.
throughout the evening it felt as though buyers were in charge here, often moving extremely slowly when it came to bidding on the top-ticket items, suggesting they thought estimates were too high. Meanwhile there seemed to be more eagerness and movement in the room when it came to a number of the lower priced lots.
Carol Vogel chose to focus on the positive:
The evening was not without its bright spots. A portrait of a russet-haired young man with blue eyes that Modigliani painted in 1919 brought $17.6 million, well above its $12 million high estimate. It had last been on the market in 2002 at Sotheby’s, where it was sold by Robert C. Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine. Back then it brought $8.4 million. […]
Works on paper were in demand. The Langens’ Picasso watercolor, “Composition: Nu sur la Plage,” which he painted on July 13, 1933, was estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million but brought $2.5 million. Five bidders went after a gouache on paper of a Surreal setting — a giant leaf rising and round white ball — with two tiny people in a landscape that Magritte created in 1963. It had been expected to fetch $700,000 to $1 million, and sold for $1.25 million
Kelly Crow found a few of the winning bidders and others who were conflicted:
Berlin-based dealer Aeneas Bastian paid Christie’s $8 million for Picasso’s “Men Eating Watermelon and Writing”, which came from the estate of former Seagram chief Edgar M. Bronfman, who died in December. Mr. Bastian said he couldn’t say whether he was buying for his gallery or a client.
New York collector Donald Bryant fought hard for Constantin Brancusi’s “The Kiss”, a stony sculpture of a smooching couple. Mr. Bryant joined in the bidding at $6.1 million, bowed out at $6.75 million, but then jumped back in at $7.2 million after his wife Bettina, who was sitting next to him in the second row, nudged him to keep competing.
And Tully too had something to add on the subject of works on paper:
The least expensive of that baker’s dozen [of Picassos], the sprightly (lot 28) “Verre et carte a jouer,” from 1914, executed in gouache black crayon and paper collage on board and once owned by Douglas Cooper, sold to New York dealer David Nash for $665,000 (est. $600-800,000).
“I had it marked in my catalogue,” said Nash as he left the salesroom, “but wasn’t expecting to bid, but when I saw it was going so cheaply, I went for it.”
Finally, it is important to remember that not everyone saw the event as a let down. Brian Boucher caught up with one:
“It was a solid sale,” New York dealer Nicholas Maclean, of gallery Eykyn Maclean, told A.i.A. at the auction house. “There was no frivolity. There were very good paintings, though not masterpieces that were going to fly.”
“Next week will be a very different mood,” Maclean said.
Christie’s First Spring Sale Drops Prices Back to Earth (NYTimes.com)
Christie’s Tallies $285.9 Million at Healthy Impressionist Sale (Art in America)