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The press covering the art market has become dangerously fixated on the market’s health. Every story obsesses over the drop in sales volume while the surrounding economies continue to heal from a decade of macro-economic turmoil. The February sales in London are unlikely to give those outside of the art market a definitive statement on the market’s future prospects. Last night’s sales of Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist art in London, nonetheless, may start putting that question behind us.
Ermanno Rivetti at The Art Newspaper gathered the numbers and demonstrated that the trend line isn’t always down:
The mood was high at Christie’s last night after the total haul for the evening’s Impressionist & Modern and Surreal auctions—£136.9m with fees and a high combined sell through rate of 92%—showed a 45% increase on results this time last year.
That doesn’t mean the market always goes up, either. The current fixation among journalists is indulging in schadenfreude over Dimitry Rybolovlev’s losses. In the US, Rybolovlev is increasingly brought up with questions about his ties to US President Donald Trump and the nature of his business transactions with real estate developer. At some point, that notoriety may finally push down the interest in his having been taken advantage of by his sometime art advisor, Yves Bouvier.
Furthermore, one would expect the intense interest in Rybolovlev’s $100+m in losses to be trotted out as a signal of the art market’s softness. One can almost write the headlines in one’s head: Art sales off by 40%; Rybolovlev loses 74% on his masterpiece! But that didn’t happen. The press and the art market seem to have cordoned off the Bouvier-Rybolovlev scandal into its own somewhat airless universe.
That Bouvier did not serve Rybolovlev well is confirmed by last night’s short sales on five works of art that Bouvier helped source privately. In every case, the losses have been far greater than any market dislocation could explain. Before we get to those numbers, it is worth acknowledging what Colin Gleadell reports. Christie’s made every effort to disguise the five separate Rybolovlev lots. Even now, the auction house will offer no confirmation to Bloomberg’s reporting that Rybolovlev is the owner of these four lots.
That raises the question: who wanted to make sure the losses were seen and acknowleged? Whom was the intended target of these leaks? There’s plenty of embarrassment to go around. Bouvier looks bad; Rybolovlev looks bad; using art as a store of value or a lever to raise one’s prestige looks like a foolish endeavor. Was the leak driven by animosity toward an individual or simply professional meddling too common in the art market where a non-interested party could not resist tipping Bloomberg off?
Whatever the reason, let’s get the scorecard out of the way. Here’s Katya Kazakina, who deserves a great deal of credit for getting the story, on how the sales played out:
Gauguin’s 1892 landscape “Te Fare (La Maison)” fetched 20.3 million pounds ($25 million), including commission […] Rybolovlev will net about $22 million based on the hammer price. The auction house had estimated the value at $15 million to $22.4 million. The buyer was a client of Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia.
A life-size bronze of a kissing couple by Auguste Rodin, “Le baiser, grand modele,” cast in 2010, found no takers. Christie’s had estimated it at $4.9 million to $7.5 million. Rybolovlev purchased the work for 7.5 million euros (then $10.4 million) in 2011.
Picasso’s 1970 “Joueur de flute et femme nue” sold for $5.8 million with commission […] Rybolovlev purchased it for 25 million euros (then $35 million) in 2010.
Rene Magritte’s 1938 “Le domaine d’Arnheim” fetched $12.7 million, with fees, surpassing the high estimate of $10.6 million. Rybolovlev paid $43.5 million for it.
When he started buying art, Dimitry Rybolovlev may have been dreaming of creating a great collection. But his zeal to skip the process seems to have cost him substantial losses. That should remind us of the value of patient collecting and a well-earned provenance.
Barbara Lambrecht’s group of works, many which had been shown widely, started Christie’s sale and set the tone of confidence, as the Master, Judd Tully, noted:
The 13 Lambrecht works made a combined £15,945,000/$19,803,690.
The value of a good provenance and even better works by artists who may not have always gotten their due, was visible in the Lambrecht results. The two Berthe Morisot paintings are a case in point. Femme en Noir was estimated as high as £800k but sold for double that on the hammer or slightly more than £2m with fees. The second work did even better, as noted below.
That the market was focused and picky, especially later in Christie’s sale as works were sold below the estimate range (but sold nonetheless demonstrating the importance the auction houses are placing on keeping their sell-through rates high,) can be seen in this bit of sleuthing from Tully:
A Matisse, the Fauve period landscape, “Paysage à Collioure” from circa 1905-06, squeaked by at £665,000/$825,930 (est. £600-800,000). It wasn’t a good result for the seller, who acquired it at the Edgar M. Bronfman estate sale at Christie’s New York in May 2014 for $1,085,000.
Those losses offer some indication of the key to this sale. Aside from the Magrittes in the Surrealism sale, there were few lots that could be considered outstanding. The three works by Le Corbusier did very well and showed there is demand for his work at a $3m level.
A solid sale with good but not great works of art is usually the sign of a healthy market. Judd Tully got to some sense of why the market continues to have support when he spoke to a former Christie’s specialist in the field:
“There was quite a lot of buying from Asia on the telephone,” noted Guy Jennings, managing director of the London-based Fine Art Fund, who was somewhat less enamored of the evening. “And they certainly worked the Asian connections to pick up some lots when there wasn’t much bidding.”
Colin Gleadell carried on this theme in some greater detail paying close attention to the bidders:
Asian telephone bidding was a feature of the evening. Christie’s estimated roughly that one third of lots went each to Asia, America, and Europe, but Asia dominated the higher priced lots. It was an all Asian affair (and that includes Japan and Taiwan) for Henri Matisse’s Jeune fille anemones sur fond violet, which sold above estimate for £8.5 million ($10.5 million).
Another Asian bidder using the same paddle number as for the Gauguin, bought Paul Cézanne’s rather homely painting of his mother above estimate for £4.5 million against bidding from London dealer, James Butterwick. And yet another, this time from Japan, claimed Berthe Morisot’s elegantly attired Femme et enfant au balcon—from the German Lambrecht collection—above estimate for £4.1 million. One of the most persistent underbidders of the evening was Tan Bo, a Christie’s director in Beijing.
Magritte painting breaks record at Christie’s Surrealist sale (The Art Newspaper)