Sotheby’s Imp-Mod sale reveals wild price swings up and down; Simon de Pury wins his $10m Gauguin commission.
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Let’s not bury the lede on last night’s sale at Sotheby’s where $349.8m in Impressionist and Modern art was sold. The top lot of the night made a hammer price that was 75% of the whisper number on the extraordinarily valuable and mysteriously guarantee-covered painting. If that sale wasn’t intriguing enough, the buyer of the Monet also seems to have taken home a Caillebotte for almost $14m and another small Monet for nearly $5m. Many observers have commented on that.
“The winning bid on Tuesday came from the back of the room from a blonde woman wielding paddle 989. She sat next to a man with a phone by his ear, who appeared to be taking directions from a client.”
What has escaped notice is that earlier this year a woman matching that description bought three paintings in an Impressionist and Modern Evening sale in London too. Those works were a Renoir, a Signac for a record price and another Caillebotte painting. In total, this couple—if it is indeed the same couple—has spent more than $190m in fewer than six months.
The bidders are surely known to the auction houses who have seated them in the Evening sales. Their newcomer status was underscored last night by their having been seated at the back of the sale room. The last time something like this happened was when a representative for Bidzina Ivanshvili stunned the Sotheby’s with a similar back-of-the-room performance for a record-setting Picasso Dora Maar painting. That was 13 years ago and was a harbinger of the importance of Russian oligarchs in the auction market.
The art trade that surrounded the bidders at the event is still trying to figure out who they are. Who this couple represents and what their intentions are will undoubtedly activate the Impressionist market for some time to come. Let’s hope it lasts longer than Harry Smith’s brief Picasso buying spree in London last winter.
Setting the mystery couple aside, Sotheby’s sale came down to three lots. The Monet grainstacks, the Picasso Femme au chien and the Caillebotte painting of the Rue Halévy were the best examples of top lots bid well over the estimates. The only work from the top lots at Sotheby’s sold for a compromise price below the low estimate was the late Picasso musketeer. That painting as emblematic of the bulk of the sale, though.
What we saw in a pronounced way last night was the return of volatility to the Impressionist and Modern market, according to Pi-eX’s Christine Bourron. What she means is that estimates were hardly predictive of final prices last night with many lots diverging in both directions. After many seasons where guarantees have been blamed for taking the volatility out of the market (even if no one used the term volatility,) it has been a boon to see Sotheby’s manage their sale so well. The benefit is that they increased the number of lots sold, increased their hammer price overall but were able to establish a price correction for a number of works where consignors held unrealistic expectations. More realistic numbers are now publicly available as reference points for private sales and consignors. “A price correction (badly needed) was achieved softly, without depressing the market,” Bourron writes about the sales data. “That’s the great thing about volatility!”
Even where works were able to sell within their estimates, the lack of price appreciation over time has hampered their status as a store of value. Here, Judd Tully does his usual sedulous research on a Fernand Léger that at least found a buyer:
A larger Léger, Le Campeur, 1er état (The Camper, First State) from 1954, this one replete with multiple figures and inspired by Édouard Manet’s masterpiece Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, went to another telephone bidder for $8.24 million (on a $6 million–$8 million estimate). The Léger work last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2005 for $7.63 million.
Of the eight Pablo Picasso offerings, the first on the block, a somber large-scale Nazi Occupation–era interior with a rich exhibition history, Nature morte à la chaise et aux glaïeuls (Still Life with Chair and Gladioli), 1943, sold to international dealer David Nahmad for $4.58 million, well within its estimate of $4 million–$6 million.
Finding more works that can excite bidders whether from estates or through arranging financial deals, is the challenge for the Impressionist and Modern market. Increased volatility on the upside should help with that process but it remains to be seen whether the downward price pressure on all but the most intriguing works will have a positive effect on putting these sales together.
Simon de Pury Wins His $10m Commission on the $210m Gauguin
You can read the entire appellate opinion in Simon de Pury’s favor here. But the gist of the long legal document is that the court believes the oral agreement between de Pury and Rudi Staechelin, the seller of Paul Gauguin’s ‘Nafea faa ipoioi’ for $210m, to pay de Pury a $10m commission is valid. The on-again-off-again sale negotiation between Staechelin and a representative of the Qatari royal family eventually fell far short of Staechlin’s hopes.