This round-up of the coverage of last night’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale at Christie’s is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions come with a grace period of one month. Feel free to subscribe and cancel if you’re not satisfied with our coverage and analysis.
There’s a somewhat surprising narrative emerging around this season’s sales in New York that present them as some sort of a test of an uncertain market. The narrative is dependent upon showing a marked decline from the sale totals of 2014 and 2015. What we’re learning as the week of sales begins is that the issue of market confidence is a major one for the auction houses even though the supposed lack of confidence is a result of their having tried to manage their businesses in a more effective and profitable way.
Nonetheless, in the meantime, Christie’s has installed a new Chief Executive and he has re-raised the stakes in the art market. As a result, Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale doubled the level of last year’s sale making a solid $298.2m total that was well within the estimate range on hammer price terms.
The Financial Times captured the mood with these comments:
Guillaume Cerutti, the auctioneer’s chief executive, said it was a “fantastic start for the major collections that will be sold this week”. “This will give confidence to the market,” he told the Financial Times after the auction. “Last year the consignors . . . were more cautious. They were waiting because of the economic conditions, the political conditions. This year we found the sellers were more confident . . . That’s what we witnessed tonight and it is what we hope will happen on Wednesday with our Contemporary sale.”
The solid showing by privately held Christie’s, which is controlled by French billionaire François Pinault, will calm nerves of collectors worried about the art market’s health after several trying years. To weather the market fragility, brokers have cut the guarantees offered to encourage consignors to put works up for sale, and have reduced staff.
The New York Times seemed to want to make the sales a referendum on the reeling Trump administration:
The auctions are expected to test the resilience of the art market in the Trump economy, although the administration’s tax policies — which will affect collecting — remain an open question.
Why or how art buyers would be thinking of Trump as they bid on Picasso, Braque and Léger wasn’t made clear. But, as Sarah Hanson points out in The Art Newspaper, the strong results were heavily weighted toward a few very expensive lots, a trend that has been evident since 2009:
Three lots made up 54% of the evening’s total. The night’s biggest success was Brancusi’s La muse endormie (cast by 1913, based on a marble sculpture of 1909-10), “a quest for many years” by the Christie’s Paris-based specialist Anika Guntrum, the auction house’s recently promoted CEO Guillaume Cerutti noted after the sale. Bidding on the bronze sculpture, estimated to fetch at least $25m, rose steadily over the course of 10 minutes to a final hammer price of $51m, or $57.4m with fees—a new record for the artist—to a buyer in the room.
The bronze is one of two in the series remaining in private hands with the other examples in prestigious museum collections. The Times when to a well-known Modern expert for his estimation of the work:
“It was a fantastic piece,” Nicholas Maclean, a dealer, said afterward. “It’s one of the great subjects, was an early cast and was in extraordinary condition. They just never come up for sale.”
Almost immediately after the work sold in the room, observers began to speculate on who the buyer was.
The head was quickly rumored to have been sold to the media mogul David Geffen over the phone, although the art adviser who won the lot, Tobias Meyer, declined to comment on his way out of the auction room and Mr. Geffen, reached by phone, said he was not the buyer.
Why Geffen? Some say he has had a well-known, long-standing interest in the artist. And he is known to have worked with Meyer. Then, again, it is relatively easy to conjure up a list of equally wealthy collectors who have worked with Meyer, have a propensity toward acquiring exceptional works and have collections that might be enhanced by a Brancusi bronze.
The other top lots of the evening didn’t quite have the same break-out feel leaving the rest of the evening with a workman-like pace. Think about that: Christie’s doubled its sale total without generating much excitement beyond a single, admittedly-impressive lot. Here’s NY Times again on the number two lot of the evening:
The second-highest price of the night was the $45 million paid for Picasso’s 1939 painting “Femme Assise, Robe Bleue,” which was also guaranteed and carried a low estimate of $35 million. It was won on the phone by Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. This head-and-shoulders portrait of the artist’s lover and muse Dora Maar was sold by the Greek collector and financier Dimitri Mavrommatis, who bought the painting at Christie’s in 2011 for $29 million.
Hanson tried to connect this to sell-through rates. But the recent trend toward heavily managed sale results is just that, a recent trend. Selling slightly more than three-quarters of the lot is traditionally within the range of a successful sale, especially one populated with estates that might have variable works:
Material on the Modern end generally sold well, but a wide gulf opened between the top lots and the rest. The question remains: what of the non-masterpiece material not consigned as part of a package deal? Compared with the 1 March evening sale in London, which achieved 92% sell-through by lot, Christie’s New York managed just 78%, with 12 passed lots.
This did not mean the electrons were not firing, in the view of New York dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, who deemed bidding “deep but considered at the top level”. Aside from what he described as a “disappointing” result of $10m ($11.4m with fees, sold on a single bid) for Fernand Léger’s Nature more aux elements mécaniques, “they are prices I would expect privately for those pieces”.
One might add the strong prices for the Chagall and Braque paintings that sold toward the top of their estimate ranges or exceeded them significantly. Indeed, Braque’s cubist work was was an early lot in the sale that performed with strength reflecting the appetite for good works. It was followed by the Chagall which seemed to suggest the sale was beginning to gain momentum (later in the evening a Chagall gouache exceeded estimates but still seemed a bargain to some on the sidelines.)
These were all works donated to the Cleveland Clinic, as Judd Tully, explains:
A suite of six works offered from the Cleveland Clinic [lot 6] and donated by collector/philanthropist Sydell Miller made some hay, as Marc Chagall’s uplifting and romantic “Les trois cierges” from 1939 sold to Cambridge England based art advisor Libby Howie for $14,583,500 (est. $8-12 million). “It’s a beautiful picture,” said Howie as she exited the salesroom, “it was unvarnished and had an emotional quality to it like some of the early works. I’ve never bought a Chagall before and it’s going to a very good European collection.” Howie beat out at least three telephone bidders.
That Miller momentum came to a peak with the sale of Picasso’s 1920 cubist portrait of his then wife that made a healthy but within estimate $30m. Christie’s was keen to let the world know that Chinese buyers acquired a quarter of the evening’s lots. Americans took home 42% of the lots and the final third went to the rest of the world. ArtNews’s Nate Freeman added a little flesh to that number which included the big Picasso:
Chinese bidding was strong all around, as specialists also secured for clients there Monet’s La berge du Petit-Gennevilliers, soleil couchant, 1875, for $2.8 million, and Monet’s La route de Vétheuil, effet de neige, 1979, for $11.4 million, among other lots.
Artnet was surprised to see a Contemporary specialist pressed into service on a Henry Moore but the work itself and the artist, in general, tend to be as much esteemed by Contemporary collectors as anyone else:
The highest estimated of these was Moore’s Large Four Piece Reclining Figure (conceived and cast in 1972–1973), which sold for $8.2 million with premium. (Without premium, it fetched $7.1 million—squarely within the presale estimate of $6–8 million.) Surprisingly, the winning bid was placed not by an established Impressionist and Modern specialist but by Loic Gouzer, Christie’s recently promoted co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art in the Americas.
We’ll give the last word to Nate Freeman who captured this wistful scene that seems to sum up the Modern market:
As he strolled alone down the hallway, David Nahmad stopped to stare longingly at a Fernand Léger work to be offered in the Christie’s Imp-mod day sale on Tuesday, which was hanging on a wall adjacent to the salesroom exit. He smiled at it, gave it an affectionate tap at the center of the canvas, and walked away.
Christie’s raises $289m in its most successful auction since 2010 (Financial Times)
Christie’s New York evening sale finds success with Brancusi and Picasso (The Art Newspaper)
After Heavy Bidding, a Brancusi Head Sells for $57.4 Million at Christie’s (The New York Times)
Christie’s Stellar Season Opener (BLOUIN ARTINFO)