In an increasingly competitive global marketplace for art, Christie’s remains a mysterious company. It is by turns almost recklessly bold and suffocatingly risk adverse. Last night’s Artist Muse sale seems to have captured that duality in a single hour. After amassing an impressive trove of art using its own deep pockets, Christie’s announced as the sale began that it had laid off the risk on the evening’s two top lots, the Modigliani nude and the Lichtenstein Nurse. The latter surely helped the work sell (there seemed to be only one bidder), while the latter cut off the road to making the night’s venture very profitable.
Guarantees are hardly the only sign of the house’s divided nature. These carefully orchestrated sales continue to thrust Christie’s into the white hot center of the art market giving the firm a superlative luster. That seems to be Christie’s intention as the press department followed up last night’s record-making sale with a list of the 10 works that have achieved $100m or more at auction. The list evenly divides between Sotheby’s and Christie’s but with Christie’s clearly holding the top spots.
Christie’s has achieved the status of most authoritative voice in the art market. Which makes the appearance of a bidder who would seem to lack qualifications on the night’s top lot mysterious. Even more so when the same bidder, a young Korean student, has only been previously seen participating in the market two years ago when Christie’s achieved the record price for Francis Bacon’s triptych. At that time, Christie’s executives made it clear the bidder had been unknown to them.
Beyond the top lot, the central story of the evening was the very concept of the supersale created by Christie’s. Sotheby’s single owner Taubman sale seemed to hamper some of the lots which might have performed better in a broader category sale. Here too there was a mix of opinions about the “curated” sale concept. For the record, the totals were down dramatically from May’s blow out $705m sale.
Robing Pogrebin and Scott Reyburn got this take on the sale concept:
“These sales have a logic to them, and they’ve been a success,” David Nisinson, a New York-based collector and adviser, said. “The market for modern and contemporary has essentially become the entire art market. If they continue to attract very major property we may see more sales with this approach.”
Artnet’s Brian Boucher spoke to Jussi Pylkkanen after the sale who seemed to have cooled on his own concept. Boucher points out that a slight majority of the 34 works on offer either failed to sell or made prices below the low estimates.
“Perhaps some of these works were not fresh to the market,” auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said at a post-sale press conference, or they were, he said in an unusual admission, “just not good enough.”
Boucher also spoke to the person who may be the most widely quoted so far these two weeks:
“It was a tremendous success in terms of raising prices,” Paris dealer Christian Ogier observed after the sale, “but a certain aggressive approach may be nearing its close.”
Ogier may be right. With a 30% drop from the previous sale and great effort being expended to gather enough material for a “curated” sale, this tactic may be unsustainable for Christie’s. The good news is that no one seems to be complaining about the Modigliani price. Katya Kazakina spoke to a former player in the market:
“It was a sensational picture and it brought a sensational price,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund in London and Christie’s former deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art in New York. “It was the best painting Modigliani ever made. It’s not often that you can say this about an artwork at auction.”
“It was straight forward: if the work was overestimated it didn’t sell,” Jennings said about the Christie’s sale. “The market has plateaued. It’s leveled off at a very high level.”
And even the buyers agreed. Here’s Kazakina’s brief conversation with the country’s leading private museum owner:
“Prices have reached the Promised Land,” billionaire collector Eli Broad said after the sale. “I can’t imagine it going much higher though. Can you?”
Curiously, the buyer of the Modigliani was more cautious about his purchase than the observers. Liu Yiqian spoke to the NY Times’s Amy Qin about the work. His answer is decidedly matter-of-fact and betrays more than a hint of the trend for global buyers to see art as an asset or even a reserve currency:
“Modigliani’s works already have a pretty established value on the market,” Mr. Liu said. “This work is relatively nice compared to his other nude paintings. And his nude paintings have been collected by some of the world’s top museums.”
Aside from Modigliani, the other story of the evening was Roy Lichtenstein’s girls. Christie’s got their price for the Nurse. At $95m, it was no small feat. There was one bidder whom some think would logically be Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi who is a deep collector of the artist’s work.
Beneath that, the Crying Girl enamel set a dramatic new price of nearly $13.4m for one of these series works. (It is worth noting again that the famous “cruel and insulting offer” purchase of Girl in Mirror that Gagosian gallery arranged in 2009 was remains an extraordinary buy for the purchaser.)
Judd Tully captured some of the regret previous owners had over the success of these Lichtenstein girls:
Collector Peter Brant, who owned the painting for a time in the 1970’s, talked about it as he exited the crowded and chilly salesroom. “It’s a great painting and as to the price, it’s hard to determine value with great works,” he said. He added ruefully, “I didn’t sell it because I didn’t like it.”
But not all of the Lichtenstein girls fared well at Christie’s. The sale closed with two exceptional but tiny drawings of girls that made substantial losses for the consignor. These “curated” sales don’t seem to have coattails to raise up the non-masterpiece material. Real A+ works sold though, as Dan Duray heard from some bidders:
a rare carved wood sculpture by Paul Gauguin, Thérèse (1902-03) attracted three telephone bidders before selling for $31m (est $18m-$25m). The dealer Andrew Fabricant was the underbidder in the saleroom and said he was “disappointed on many levels because we’re not going to get another one like that again, it’s perfect.” He described the rest of the sale “all over the place”.
Several fair-goers remarked that the Gauguin had been well-shopped around the world at $29m but only seems to have finally sold when put up for auction. Duray still had others to hear from:
The art advisor Stephane Connery bought the night’s fifth-highest selling lot, a study for Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players (1890-96) that sold for $20.9m (est $18m-$25m). He too said the mixed results indicated that the market had grown “a little cooler, a little smarter”.
Judd Tully took note of late Picasso that came back on the market after six years to easily double in price:
Of the three Picasso offerings, the late, somewhat mad male figure, “Homme à L’épée” from July 1969, sold to the telephone for $22,565,000 (unpublished estimate in the region of $25 million. It was backed by a third party guarantee and had last sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in June 2009, when the market was weak, for £6.9/$11.4 million.
Kelly Crow got these final assessments for the Wall Street Journal:
“Flashy works did well, whether or not they were good,” said dealer Asher Edelman afterward, “but I think this could be the top of the market because as soon as the flashy guys leave, we’re all going to feel it immediately.”
Mr. Connery, who won the Cezanne, agreed. “It’s an intelligent, well-informed market that’s cooling, but it’ll chase works that are really great,” he said.
With $170.4 Million Sale at Auction, Modigliani Work Joins Rarefied Nine-Figure Club (The New York Times)
$170 Million Modigliani at Christie’s Sale (artnet News)
Chinese Billionaire Buys Modigliani for Record $170.4 Million (Bloomberg Business)
Chinese Ex-Taxi Driver Turned Billionaire Bought Modigliani Painting (The New York Times)