Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale in New York took place in the shadow of the company’s fight with investor Daniel Loeb and the results somewhat reflected the distraction. For the last several seasons, Sotheby’s could take pride in besting Christie’s in the Impressionist and Modern field. Although the numbers don’t compare to Christie’s golden goose of a Contemporary market, they do offer Sotheby’s some crucial bragging rights.
Whatever motivated Sotheby’s to produce a 72-lot sale of Impressionist and Modern works, the strategy backfired. Instead being able to come out of management’s settlement with Loeb with momentum, the sale turned into a rear-guard loss totaling $219m against Christie’s own $285m the previous night which impressed few in the art world.
The night didn’t start that way. Beginning with more works from the Jan Krugier collection—an estate Sotheby’s won after Christie’s was backed into a corner on the dealer’s stock—the sale looked well-managed even if the works were estimated too high. There are few incentives for Impressionist and Modern collectors to sell. Without estates, the sales have lately become clogged with over-estimated, mediocre material. Almost halfway through the sale, the cracks split open and works began to fail with some regularity.
Nonetheless, the Impressionist and Modern market rests on some solid pillars. The Master, Judd Tully, points out that Picasso brought in $62m at Sotheby’s last night despite five failed lots and Giacometti accounted for another $35m. Two artists made up almost 45% of the auction total.
Another 30% of the sale went to Asian bidders. Kelly Crow did the sums on that:
Asian bidding proved the bright spot: Asian collectors took home at least eight lots worth a combined $63.9 million. These included a $19.2 million Henri Matisse view of a woman painting at her easel, “The Afternoon Session,” also being sold by Mr. Fisher; and a $15.8 million Claude Monet, “Japanese Bridge.”
Chinese collectors also bought works by Auguste Rodin, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró and Pierre Bonnard. Their presence and increasing focus on Impressionist and modern art could only help so much, though.
Tully gave us a little color on the Krugier lots:
The evening got off to a stellar start as Pablo Picasso’s “Composition avec femme aux cheveaux mi-longs,” a sparely linear white panel composition from 1930 and one of a dozen works from the Jan Krugier estate, sold to Zurich/St. Moritz dealer Krystna Gmurzynska of Galerie Gmurzynska for $2,285,000 (est. $900,000-1.2 million). Despite the big price, Gmurzynska said, “I thought it was quite a good buy.”
And a sense of what the dealers thought of the Impressionist works:
Though dominated by 20th century offerings, the sale also included a handful of Impressionist-era works, like Alfred Sisley’s light-and-shadow-dominated painting from 1880, “Les Carrieres a veneux au soleil-le matin,” which brought $3,749,000 (est. $2-3 million), and Claude Monet’s dramatic cliffside view from 1882, “Sur la falaise a Pourville,” deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sold to another telephone bidder for $8,229,000 (est. $5-7 million). London dealer Jonathan Green of Green Gallery was the underbidder.
Green tried for two other lots, noting after the sale, “there’s a very strong market for good things, but there’s no market for s—!”
Tully also (now you know why we call him The Master) spotted the buyer of the rediscovered Miró.
Works by other modern masters, including five paintings by Joan Miro, were led by “Sans titre” from 1947, painted during Miro’s stay in New York (and literally filmed while he was making it), which sold to a young and constantly smiling Asian bidder seated in the salesroom with a cell phone glued to his ear for $8,005,000 (est. $4-6 million). Cool under pressure, he beat out at least three other bidders.
The Asian kid was described by others as rocking a faux-hawk. That was little consolation to the underbidder Brian Boucher talked to:
“The auction houses have to work much harder to achieve good sales,” New York dealer David Benrimon told A.i.A. as the auction wound down. He had bid unsuccessfully on a 1947 Miró canvas that brought $8 million. He’d had better luck selling, with a Braque still life from 1927, acquired from his gallery four years ago, which brought $1.9 million on a high estimate of $900,000.
“Yesterday had no steam,” he added. “But both last night and tonight, there was no electricity.”
Dan Duray says the turning point of the sale was Picasso’s Le Sauvetage, the night’s top lot and one that seemed to be guaranteed by the Mugrabis who were seen bidding:
But that Picasso was a showstopper in more ways than one. Coming as it did at the sale’s one-third mark, lot 24, and still just one hour into it, people began to leave shortly afterward. Twenty more minutes and the room was halfway empty.
Sotheby’s critics have in the past accused the house of packing its high-profile evening auctions in an attempt to add a sheen to subpar material, and that may have been the case tonight. Of the 50 lots that sold, 22 went for below $3 million.
Many big-ticket items failed, among them three Picassos, each of a different one of his lovers: a 1963 portrait of his wife Jacqueline which fizzled at $6.2 million; a 1953 Françoise Gilot, which gave out at $7.8 million and Marie-Thérèse Walter, which was bought in at $13 million.
Of that last lot, which was awkwardly abstracted, dealer David Nash said that, despite the popular subject, he wasn’t surprised that it didn’t sell since “it’s not a very typical example.”
“They tried to compare it to this and this,” he said gesturing to more figurative portraits of Walter in the lot’s notes. “But it isn’t in the same league at all.”
Katya Kazakina asked for an explanation on all of these Picasso crash and burns:
Several dealers dismissed a possibility of the market not being able to absorb such a large number of Picassos, saying some unsold pieces had been shopped around while others simply didn’t look good.
“The market is extremely selective,” Loic Malle, a Paris-based curator and art adviser, said in an interview at the auction. “Younger collectors want Picassos that look contemporary.”
They also want Picassos that are attractively priced. Jan Krugier’s heirs pushed the envelope on estimates at Christie’s last year and the auction house got burned. That turned out to be lucky for Sotheby’s. Carol Vogel explains:
Last year, Mr. Krugier’s heirs tried to sell some works in a disappointing auction at Christie’s. One of that auction’s casualties — Picasso’s “Femme dans un rocking chair,” from 1956 — was back on the block, but this time at Sotheby’s. In November, Christie’s had hoped it would sell for $8 million to $12 million. This time around it was estimated to bring $2 million to $3 million. It sold for $6.3 million. Lulu Creel, who runs Sotheby’s in Mexico, took the winning bid on behalf of a client bidding by telephone.