Last night’s £121.9m ($207m) Impressionist and Modern art sale at Sotheby’s presents a few problems for anyone trying to interpret its meaning for the market the morning after. One the positive side, the sale was among the top Impressionist and Modern sales in London at Sotheby’s and came with a very impressive 91.3% sell-through rate. On the negative side, we first saw this trend in New York in the Contemporary sales where Christie’s brought back to the podium just about every unsold work it has seen in the previous three years. Now, with more than a third of the lots coming from the Jan Krugier estate which had horribly mis-managed its first sale at Christie’s by insisting on estimates that were confirmed last night as grossly unrealistic, Sotheby’s ran a sale of works that were by definition not fresh to the market yet succeeded.
Judd Tully showed the complexity of what Sotheby’s was dealing with, including the fact that Krugier had been buying into the top of the previous market which ultimately influences the returns on these sales:
A healthy chunk of the total on Monday came from 17 works consigned from the estate of modern art dealer Jan Krugier, who died in Geneva in 2008 at the age of 80. All 17 sold, for a combined £27,134,500/$46,128,650, well ahead of the £12.6-18.7 million pre-sale estimate. Their likely success was evident early on, when one of the Krugier offerings, Jean Arp’s abstract painted wall relief “Point-Virgule” from 1927, sold for £422,500/$720,151 (est. £180-250,000). It had last been offered with a much higher estimate in November 2013 at Christie’s New York, at a single-owner Krugier sale that fell flat, including this work then estimated at $800,000-1.2 million.
“The Krugier material was priced attractively in order to entice bidders and it succeeded,” said Philip Hook, senior international specialist in the Impressionist and Modern department of Sotheby’s London. Other Krugier winners included Paul Klee’s “Beginnende Kuhle (Incipient Coolness)” from 1937, a color-charged composition in oil on board that sold for £1,082,500/$1,845,121 (est. £400-600,000); Pablo Picasso’s “L’Atelier,” an action packed self-portrait with models from 1962 that sold to New York’s Acquavella Galleries for £3,554,500/$6,058,645 (est. £2-3 million); and Wassily Kandinsky’s early landscape “Herbstlandschaft (Autumn Landscape)” from 1911, which fetched £5,570,500/$9,494,917.
Though “Atelier” sold well in light of its estimate, Krugier had acquired it at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 for a heady $6,481,000
Indeed, the one truly fresh work that the auction house was clearly excited about, the Mondrian Composition with Red, Blue and Grey that had never been sold at auction before was a relative disappointment by selling at the low end of the estimate range for £15m or nearly $26m.
If you look to the press, you’ll see an equal level of confusion. Kelly Crow, in the Wall Street Journal, suggests the buying was a devil-may-care jaunt by new money collectors:
Throughout the sale, collectors appeared willing to splurge on just about everything, from Picasso etchings to Balthus works on paper. That shopping-spree attitude lifted Sotheby’s sale […]
Yet, in the same story, we’re told the auction—populated by works from one of the most sophisticated dealers in recent memory—was all about buyers looking for quality.
All season, collectors from around the world—and particularly China—have thronged after Impressionist and modern art trophies yet bypassed more mediocre material. Sotheby’s sale was designed to suit their tastes for name-brand artists and works containing a colorful, cheery palette. Chinese bidders chased after examples by Monet, Max Beckmann and Tamara De Lempicka, but they were largely outbid by American and Russian bidders. David Norman, a Sotheby’s expert who typically represents American collectors, took home the Monet and the Mondrian as well as Beckmann’s $8.1 million “Still-Life with Gramophone and Irises.” The 1924 rosy table scene hailed from the artist’s rare early period in Frankfurt and also came on the market from the estate of Pablo Picasso’s longtime dealer, Jan Krugier.
American and Russian bidders, therefore, were willing to stretch for works with a powerful provenance and historical distinction. It’s hard to think of Max Beckmann as a trophy for emerging market buyers looking to impress their peers. (Max who?) The lead lot, the $54m Monet, falls more into that territory. For Carol Vogel, the Monet masked an uneventful evening:
It was the top price in an otherwise modest sale, with Asians and Russians bidding consistently throughout the evening. The sale totaled $207.8 million, near but not at its high estimate of $210.3 million. Of the 46 works on offer, only four went unsold. The Monet’s failure to sell in 2010 might be attributed to its soaring estimate back then, which was $44.3 million to $59.1 million. (The seller had bought it at Christie’s 14 years earlier for $20.9 million.) This time around it was estimated at $33.6 million to $50.4 million.
What happened in the intervening years? Well, an extraordinary amount of asset reflation/inflation. These are different dollars that will change hands in the next few weeks from the currency available in 2010.
Katya Kazakina, ever alert to Russian buying, spoke to Philip Hook about the presence of new bidders in the room. Kazakina doesn’t mention, though it seems relevant, that the previous Monet record was set by a Russian buyer:
“We are seeing a whole new group of buyers,” Philip Hook, Sotheby’s senior international specialist, Europe, said after the sale. “There are Russian, Asian and South American collectors who weren’t in the market four years ago.”
The auction record for a Monet painting is $80.4 million, set in June 2008 at Christie’s, according to Artnet Worldwide Corp.’s price database.
Russian bidders were active in the sale, chasing works by Marc Chagall and Alexej Von Jawlensky. A client of Russian-born Alina Davey of Sotheby’s private sales group fought off a client of Sotheby’s Asia Chairman Patti Wong to win Tamara De Lempicka’s fleshy nude “Suzanne au Bain” for 2.4 million pounds.
A Strong Start for Impressionism at Sotheby’s London (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Dueling Bidders Push Up Trophy Art Prices (Wall Street Journal)
Monet’s ‘Nympheas’ Kicks Off Summer Sales in London (NYTimes)
Monet’s Water Lilies Lead Sotheby’s $208 Million Auction (Bloomberg)