But who was that couple that bid up—and bought—three of the most sought after works of the week?
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
There was a lot of talk surrounding the London Impressionist, Modern and Surrealism sales about two unexpected factors. One was predominant importance of Magritte in the current market for works of Surrealism—we told you last week about the collector who has been living on a plane these last two weeks who called Magritte the new Warhol—and the other was the visible presence of Japanese underbidders, something the Impressionist and Modern market has not seen in some time.
This week’s Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist auctions in London should have belonged to Monet but instead were dominated by Magritte. A total of 11 works by the Belgian surrealist all sold across two evenings, including L’étoile du matin (1938) for £4.5m (£5.3m with fees, Sotheby’s) and Le lieu commun (1964) for £16m (£18.4m with fees) among a strong selection at Christie’s.
Despite much talk of the concurrent slowdown of the Chinese economy, Asian buying was strong and auctioneer Helena Newman spoke after the sale of “Pan-Asian bidding” with active buying from Taiwan and Japan, alongside China. Indeed, the poster lot—Monet’s view of Le Palais Ducal (1908)—was underbid by a Japanese bidder.
This is something former Sotheby’s specialist Melanie Clore tried to explain to Colin Gleadell in the aftermath of Sotheby’s well-managed sale:
“Given the current political and economic uncertainty, the sale did extraordinarily well, due in part I think to the power of international collectors buying in dollars,” said Sotheby’s former co-chairman Melanie Clore, now of Clore Wyndham Fine Art. “In particular those from Asia and the US seemed very active.” And, in relation to the low value of the pound sterling, “some of the pre-sale estimates were enticing for those buyers in key international markets.”
Her macro-economic reasoning is appealing even if the premise might be a little too convenient. The pound is low because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Without that uncertainty, there would not be a currency advantage to buying in the UK using US dollars.
Nor should we assume that all sales in the UK this Winter are meant to take advantage of the country’s (temporarily?) suppressed currency. London remains—with or without the weak pound—a better place to sell subtle works that might have trouble breaking through the din in New York. That seems to have been the reasoning behind bringing the Wallace brothers collection to London. That un-guaranteed collection seemed to struggle under the weight of the consignor’s own calculus. Even with an adjustable, unpublished estimate, the lead Monet lot was unable to find a market price. Perhaps the estimates simply put any bidder off or the consignors might have other intentions for the work if it did not achieve their lofty prices. Though they showed a willingness to compromise on their Cézanne still life in the end.
(It’s also worth noting that something was never entirely right with the marketing of the Hidden Treasures collection. Christie’s announced the collection quietly on their website and seemed to be laboring under some constraints in showing the works in the months leading up to the sale. All of which suggests the auction house was happy and/or lucky not to have been further constrained by a guarantee—or, maybe a guarantee would have given them the freedom to make a success of the sale.)
Kelly Crow spoke to another former Sotheby’s hand about the failures in London:
“I’m still seeing a lot of buying,” said private dealer David Norman, who just flew back to New York after attending the first round of auctions in London. “It’s just a smart market, and people don’t just want to buy the right names. They want the right examples by the right names—and at the right estimates.”
For interested parties like Norman, the night at Christie’s was a “tale of two sales.” Last week might have been the worst of times for the Boston brothers but it was good times (if not the best of times) for the rest of the works sold that evening.
Gleadell observed that Christie’s sale was helped by Asian bidders but not dominated by them:
In sum, apart from the overestimated Wallace collection, it was a solid performance for the market. Although Asian bidders were active, bidding on the top lots by Cézanne and Signac, and buying a mediocre Fauve river scene by Vlaminck on the low estimate for £4.7 million ($6.3 million), they did not make an outsize impression, and were visible bidding only on a few lots. Instead, Christie’s said, the evening’s bidders came from 25 different countries—enough of a spread to maintain London’s international trading status in spite of all its Brexit wobbles.
This may just be another way of saying that consignors looking for the broadest exposure have found a solid venue in London. Asian, European, Gulf State, Russian and American buyers all feel equally accessible to sellers. The currency arbitrage doesn’t hurt either.
But not all lots are able to find buyers in London—or anywhere else. Gleadell tells this interesting story about a Picasso floral painting that doesn’t much look like a Picasso and seems to suffer for it.
Another Nahmad picture included an early Pablo Picasso still life of flowers which the family had bought back in 1988 for £880,000. They tried to sell it in November 2011 with a $3.5 million estimate, but it went unsold. Now, estimated at a reduced £1.6 million to £2.4 million ($2-3 million) it was one of three lots withdrawn from the sale, presumably due to lack of pre-sale interest.
Finally, and this observation by Anny Shaw was downplayed in The Art Newspaper (which doesn’t really explain why we’re also burying it here at the end of this wrap-up), three of the works that seemed to generate some of the most intense bidding interest at Christie’s were bought by the same couple. This kind of buying brings to mind last year’s odd Picasso binge. And remains equally mysterious in its cause and effect:
The buyer of the Signac was a mysterious young man and woman, bidding with two different paddles but sitting together. Soliciting much whispering from London dealers who had not seen them before, the pair were splurging on light-infused landscapes, hoovering up three of the best here: the Signac; Gustave Caillebotte’s spring-like scene of a man and woman walking in a garden, Chemin montant (1881) for £14.5m (£16.6m with fees, also an artist record) and, from the Hidden Treasures sale, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s dappled view of a tree-lined country path, Sentier dans le bois, for£11m (£12.6m with fees)