Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale continues several themes already visible last week and reconfirmed in Sotheby’s sale on Monday. The market, especially the market for high-quality or distinctive works by name artists, remains quite strong. But it is stronger at the lower levels—a theme that is not new in the broader art market but may be newer in a Impressionist and Modern market flush with fresh supply—but selective at the upper reaches with sellers asking the fullest value upfront.
The two top lots in Christie’s sale, the Malevich and Brancusi, are a case study. Both were offered with the same estimate level, a very considerable $70m. Both had impeccable museum credentials, the Brancusi had been on long-term loan at the Met for decades and the Malevich had been at the Stedelijk museum before it was restituted in 2008. Both sales can be rightly considered once-in-a-generation opportunities at a time when art buyers have more money than opportunities to buy world-class works.
The works also offer a contrast in selling strategies. The Brancusi was sold by the heirs of the original buyers who purchased the work in 1955 directly from the artist for a few thousand dollars. “This is what you call fresh to market,” Judd Tully remarked drily in his ARTnews report. Despite the incontestable windfall, the family chose to take a third-party guarantee. They locked in their gains with the trade-off of leaving some money—$187,500, to be precise—on the table. (Update: Several experts on guarantees, including the advisor who worked on the Brancusi guarantee, have pointed out that the consignors did not sacrifice the $187,500. That money comes from the auction house’s premium. And they are correct. We regret getting carried away with the rhetorical construction.)
The Malevich was took the opposite tack. A seller comfortable with risk, the Nahmad family, offered the work without any financial guardrails. Selling “naked”—to use a term the art market likes to pretend is common parlance—was seen as validating the market, as this quote from Katya Kazakina’s Bloomberg piece illustrates:
“It was a shot in the arm for the market,” said David Norman, a private art dealer in New York. “It was properly executed, reasonably estimated and with very few guarantees. It was a good, clean sale.”
The Malevich got its first bid at $64m from Alex Rotter. Another telephone bidder drove the price to $70m against Rotter who countered with a split bid at $71m already signaling the bidding was narrowing. That move brought out Brett Gorvy who traded $1m bids up to $76m where Rotter’s client lost ardor. Auctioneer Adrien Meyer tried to coax a little more from Rotter’s client softly blowing the suggestion that Rotter might want to float another $500k bid. But it was already to late to revive the embers.
Gorvy had the prize. Uncharacteristically, he was tight-lipped as the left the room. Although he failed to respond to a reporters question about whom he might be representing, Gorvy had predicted on Instagram earlier in the day referring to the Brancusi and the Malevich “both of which should sell in the region of $80 million.”
Indeed they did. The Malevich was $85.8m when it was all said and done. The Brancusi came in at a more sedate $71m. Nine million down; almost six up. But both within the margin of error. The Brancusi was slow to start with a Christie’s staffer finally opening at $54m countered by Tobias Meyer, the art advisor who is said to have placed the work with Christie’s for the consignor. Tobias Meyer bid $58m in the room. Loic Gouzer stood on the bidders podium, a half-smile on his face waiting for the auctioneer Adrien Meyer to give him an opening.
Adrien Meyer was happy to oblige. The auctioneer proffered a chopped bid, “Would you like $59m? You seem tempted.” With that, Gouzer raised a finger for the bidder we now know was the guarantor. The first bidder took the hint and offered $60m. But that seemed to get Gouzer’s client in the mood to finish the show. Gouzer casually jumped the bid to $63m. Adrien Meyer offered the Christie’s staffer and bidder in the room (the other Meyer) a chance to go to $64m. But the appetite wasn’t there.
Even with three bidders involved, the work sold in a pattern closer to the week’s other very big lots within the Rockefeller sale and without, the New York Times‘s Scott Reyburn captured a sentiment that might have applied to some of the other lots over $50m:
“It wasn’t his greatest sculpture, but it was a fair price,” Offer Waterman, a dealer based in London, said. “I thought it would make more.”
It would be rash to draw too many conclusions from this pairing of works at Christie’s. There is the temptation to want to point to the tempered sale of the Brancusi at some future date when the conversation turns to the idea that guarantees inflate prices. Here there’s anecdotal evidence that, like the Modigliani the night before, the guarantee acts as dis-incentive to bid or bid too aggressively.
The Malevich, on the other hand, probably isn’t the best evidence that risk-taking gets rewarded. The Times also heard about the Malevich price from Offer Waterman:
“It made a record then, and it made a record now,” said Mr. Waterman. “The owner hung onto it for 10 years and got a decent return.”
Last week, the Times wanted to know why a Juan Gris from the Rockefeller collection sold for so much more than a Gris from the Yves Saint-Laurent collection sold about the same time the Malevich was purchased for $60m. Both events took place during the global financial crisis when cash was perceived to be far more valuable than objects like Malevich or Gris paintings. Ten years later, the Malevich sells for a nearly 27% gain. That can be described as decent return without context. Throw in the raw observation that the S&P 500 was at a level that is a third of what it is today. And you have a rough comparison. The Malevich’s 27% return pales next to the 200% performance of the US stock market in the same period of time. Which may explain why the seller now prefers cash to art.
Art into cash; cash into art. That’s the business of auction houses and art galleries. Before we look at the rest of the sale, which has a number of interesting performances, let’s take a brief diversion to examine Christie’s messaging about the sale and what it tells us about their broader corporate strategy and positioning.
It is no secret that Christie’s owner sets the firm’s corporate priorities around market share, prestige and status over raw profit. As several observers point out, François Pinault’s other businesses have appreciated so much recently—Kering’s stock price has tripled in value over the past two years—Christie’s is under little or no profit pressure. Meanwhile, after a brief interregnum, it would appear that Christie’s new management is executing a strategy that measures success in return on attention.
The weak links in Christie’s ability to garner attention have been in the Old Master and Impressionist and Modern markets. Last year’s stunning Leonardo da Vinci sale may not have repaired house’s weakness in Old Masters but it didn’t hurt. Impressionist and Modern art had suffered for a number of years at Christie’s even as there were isolated successes with works by Monet, van Gogh and Brancusi.
Christie’s previous pursuit of dominance in the field was often built upon a culture of internal competition and a focus on Contemporary art over all other fields. At the post-sale press conference, Christie’s new-ish CEO Guillaume Cerutti seems to be making a carefully choreographed show of teamwork as the key to internal success.
“I would like also to say this result has been possible thanks to great teamwork not only within the Impressionist and Modern department but across the organization, across the company,” Cerutti said. “I would also like to pay tribute to all of the departments that have worked so collaboratively with the Impressionist and Modern department.” Cerutti singled out Gouzer and Rotter, co-heads of Contemporary, for their contribution but was careful to also point out that their colleagues were working to return the favor in a few days time. From there the press conference gave face time to as many stakeholders from the department as possible. Each made sure to acknowledge the importance of teamwork in the sale’s success.
The other point hammered home by the speakers was the value of having the Rockefeller collection precede the Impressionist and Modern sale. Again, Christie’s seems to have redoubled its efforts to win consignments with favorable terms so the Rockefeller sale would not seem to fall off into a lackluster May season.
Is such a strategy sustainable? Does it lead to something more valuable than profits? Christie’s has been leading the charge toward breaking down collecting categories positioning itself as the house that sells the best of the best works. But the most expensive end of the market isn’t performing terribly well these days. Over the last few cycles in Contemporary art, Sotheby’s has made big gains during their profitable day sales where the hunt is on for the kinds of finds that collectors love.
Even last night, the lively moments in the auction were for off-beat, interesting or exceptional works that were not priced to be exceptional. Judd Tully captured some of that here:
Modernist works from the 1920s attracted strong interest, as evidenced by Fernand Léger’s classic, color-charged Le grand dejeuner (1921), featuring a trio of female nudes clustered around a small red table, which sold to a telephone bidder for $19.4 million (est. $15 million–$25 million). It was the sale’s cover lot and had carried no guarantee. A larger version from the same year is enthroned just a few blocks away from Christie’s, at the Museum of Modern Art.
Tremendous and surprising interest was evident in Edouard Manet’s stunning portrait, L’Italienne (1860), which sparked a drawn-out bidding battle that ended with New York dealer Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery snaring the prize at $11 million (est. $3 million–$5 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York back in October 1978 for $440,000.
“This is a beautiful painting of a relatively unattractive woman,” said Fabricant as he left the salesroom, “and seven people chased it. This was a real verismo Manet,” using an opera term to describe the Italian sitter, Agostina Segatori, who had a love affair with van Gogh.
Fabricant told Sarah Hanson at The Art Newspaper, “I didn’t buy it for stock”, on his way out of the saleroom. She connected the success of the work to its having come from one of the evening’s valuable collections:
Late in the sale, one of the Coles works, Monet’s Le Pommier (1879), attractively estimated at $1.5m to $2.5m, sparked a rush of bids on its way up to $7m with fees. The updraft helped propel the Coles’ Édouard Manet, L’Italienne (1860), well beyond its $3m to $5m estimate
In a market where pricing has risen to a level that doesn’t look like it will continue to advance, money gravitates toward the unusual and overlooked which puts an increased emphasis on collections which come to market not for market considerations—meaning, no one is timing the broader market on an artist-by-artist basis—but by necessity. (Remember the Ds!?) The counter argument comes, again, from our pairing of the Brancusi and the Malevich. The work being sold by discretion out-performed the work being sold by necessity.
Nonetheless, the market perceives now to be the moment for quality work being sold without calculation. Here’s Judd Tully again:
Guy Jennings, managing director of the London-based Fine Art Group, […] noted, “There’s nothing wrong with the market if you’ve got the right material.
And Bloomberg’s Kazakina caught up with a former Sotheby’s expert to get the same take:
“These fine quality, old collections are clearly the jewels of the crown for the auctions,” said Melanie Clore, an art adviser based in London, referring to the estates of the Rockefeller, Tisch and Stafford families.
A Malevich and a Bronze by Brancusi Set Auction Highs for the Artists (The New York Times)