This round-up of the reporting on the November Impressionist and Modern Evening sales is available to AMMpro subscribers. We will have a detailed report on the sales based on lot data next week.
Anticipating the art market is never easy. This season, the Impressionist and Modern market was particularly hard to read. Christie’s ran sale with heavy emphasis on the big names—Picasso, Monet, Giacometti—that drive the Imp-Mod market; Sotheby’s tacked off in a different direction with a mix of Expressionist and other names that don’t normally carry a sale in this category. Christie’s managed their sale to a solid sell-through rate at the cost of a strong headline number; Sotheby’s pulled off strong sales for its most important offerings (save one) and seemed to abandon the latter quarter of the sale to market forces and consignor pride achieving a strong sale number with a devil-may-care sell-through rate of 75%.
At both houses, the bidding was fractured, halting and wary. Buyers were happy to slice the salami in thin bidding increments or hold their fire until another bidder showed his or her hand. All of that suggests the high asset value Impressionist and Modern market is burdened by seller expectations. In response, buyers are staging something of a strike.
That is, the buyers who were not engaged in attention-seeking stunts. Several reporters were charmed by the collector who brought his dog to Christie’s auction. But when Judd Tully tried to speak to the buyer of two works, he got this reaction:
Buttonholed as he left the salesroom, the buyer would only say, “I’m very private.” At that instant, his female companion interjected. “I’m sorry, but this is my client,” she said, and bum-rushed him to the stairway.
Collectors weren’t the only ones to behave in contradictor ways. Tully also spoke to Hugo Nathan of the advisory Beaumont Nathan who offered his take on both Imp-Mod sales:
“The top valued lots this evening were rare and important,” said Nathan, who underbid a Fauve Vlaminck and bought the Jean Arp, Torse (1931, cast 1958–60), for $2.3 million, “whereas it was different from the top lots last night at Christie’s. Things that deserved to do well and [were] of museum quality were rewarded, and there was depth in the bidding.”
It isn’t uncommon for dealers to waive at the market dismissively while trying to re-assure potential clients that true quality sells, etc. But what makes Nathan’s comments interesting was his own firm’s statements in the Wall Street Journal last week predicting a total absence of Chinese bidding and the likely failure of the restituted Kirchner that was the subject of a bidding war at Sotheby’s.
The Chinese showed up this week. Before and after their sale, Christie’s emphasized the importance of Chinese buyers to the revival of the Impressionist and Modern market. Known as buyers of Picasso, Monet and Impressionists like van Gogh, the results of the last two days suggest Chinese buyers are present but could not be relied upon to drive the market forward.
Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina had this comment from a seasoned pro:
“It didn’t seem like their Asian representatives were bidding on as many high value lots as in past seasons,” said David Norman, a private art dealer in New York who attended the Christie’s sale.
Asian buyers might not have wanted to lead the way on much of the material. But for some of Sotheby’s restituted works, representatives of the biggest North American collectors were happy to walk point. Here’s how Tully put it:
an important, restituted painting from the legendary collection and inventory of German avant-garde dealer and publisher Alfred Flechtheim, Oskar Kokoschka’s portrait of a suave yet decaying Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1910), sold to Andrew Fabricant of Gagosian for a record-shattering $20.4 million (est. $15 million–$20 million). Nick Maclean of Eykyn Maclean was the underbidder, with his anonymous client gamely directing the bidding action at his side.
Some old guard collectors like Magritte-buyer Wilbur Ross were happy to show up in person. Ross padded into a Sotheby’s box for the record-setting Magritte portrait that made $26.8m. Lévy Gorvy was seen winning the Ludwig Meidner record too.
The Giacometti Femme assise sold for a solid if unimpressive $13.8m went to Dimitri Mavromattis.
Tully did his usual deep research on the lots this week to show these sales comps over the past few years which give us a better sense of the way the Impressionist and Modern market is has leveled off over the last few years:
Buste de femme (Dora Maar), 1939, a portrait of one of the Spaniard artist’s mistresses, continued the parade of Picasso femmes this evening, and went for $7.7 million (est. $5 million–$8 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2014 for $6.1 million; tonight’s sum is not a bad return, given the brief period between the times the painting has come up for auction.
The same could not be said of one of the sale’s pricier casualties, Picasso’s Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie-Therese), 1937, which was bought in at a chandelier bid of $14 million (est. $15 million–$20 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2013 for $12.2 million.
Camille Pissarro’s stunning Parisian streetscape La Rue Saint-Lazare, temps lumineux (1893), the pendant to the canvas at the Art Institute of Chicago, realized $12.4 million (est. $8–12 million). It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001 for $6.6 million and subsequently sold privately in 2009 to tonight’s consignor.