The Imp-Mod market shines when Asian bidders show up. At Christie’s, that meant $399m last night in the Evening sale.
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Christie’s $399m Evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art builds upon the house’s success a year before assembling a strong Imp-Mod Evening sale in the shadow of David Rockefeller’s Impressionist-and-Modern heavy art collection. The two sales together gave us something of a different view of the Imp-Mod market than has previously been held. Namely, a market that many viewed as stale and lacking the best works, a market that was regularly compared to the Old Master market for its supply constraints, was suddenly re-invigorated with fresh material from an estate.
This season, Christie’s was able to nearly match the regular Imp-Mod Evening sale with works from several estates. The results were not always a ravenous reaction from bidders. Both Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse had a painting that was sold well below the low estimate and a work that was bought in; a Vuillard that failed to appreciate in value over a meaningful period. Those stood alongside some surprises for works by Pierre Bonnard, Balthus and even the night’s top lots by Cézanne and van Gogh from Si Newhouse’s collection.
Almost to give us a broad gauge of the uncertainty of the Imp-Mod market, the Newhouse collection which was being managed by as seasoned an auction hand as Tobias Meyer took third-party guarantees on the Cézanne and van Gogh in the few weeks between catalogues closing and the sale’s opening minutes. Presumably, the decision to take those guarantees was made by Meyer in consultation with Christie’s management. Neither foresaw the probability that both works would exceed the low estimates on the night. They did. The five Newhouse works sold last night brought in just under $101m.
The Art Newspaper detailed some of that sale:
“There were no disappointments on big lots and even lesser Impressionist paintings did fine by and large,” says Barbara Guggenheim of the California-based advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates. Among the big-but-bland lots that fared well was Cezanne’s Boulloire et fruits (1888-90), a nice but not retrospective-worthy still life by the Post-Impressionist painter from the Newhouse collection that hammered at $52m ($59.3m with fees), exceeding its pre-sale estimate of around $40m. Van Gogh’s Arbes dans le jardin de l’asile (1889)—one of the guaranteed works—had never appeared on the auction block before. Though small and unconventional, it brought in $35m ($40m with fees) on a $20m estimate, going to a phone bidder on the line with Capera Ryan, Christie’s Dallas-based deputy chairman.
That wasn’t the only bidding war where Ryan’s Texans faced off against Asian bidders. The presence of Chinese interest has a positive effect on more than just the works they buy. But when and whether Asian buyers are in the mood remains an inconstant force in the market.
Caution has also become a habit in the Imp-Mod market (and perhaps the Contemporary too) because of the long boom in art prices. Auction totals might fluctuate on supply but prices don’t seem to back down very much. That leads to these kinds of reactions recorded by the New York Times’s Scott Reyburn:
“Solid works, solid sales, but no fireworks,” said Thomas Danziger, a New York lawyer who represents clients who buy and sell at the top end of the market.
Mr. Danziger thought bidding would not have been significantly affected by Monday’s 2.4 percent decline on the benchmark S&P 500 index, the steepest fall in American stocks for months. “People would have decided what they were going to do long before the auction,” he said. “If you’re going to spend $10 million, you’re not going to worry about what happened in the previous three hours.”
The Times really ought to know better that art market performance is not a reflection of equity market blips, especially when the broader equity markets have been on a sustained run that leave them valued to near perfection. That has two knock on effects. One is a wealth effect; the other is a nagging concern that equity markets have nowhere to go but down which, for thin sliver of the global population, makes art less of a comparative risk.
That doesn’t mean art is riskless as The Master, Judd Tully, ably shows in his Artnews market report:
A larger Henry Moore composition in a rich mélange of gouache, water color, wax crayons, pencils, pen, and ink—Two Women and Child from 1948—brought in $2.96 million (on an estimate of $2.8 million to $3.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s in London in June 2015, at a more buoyant time in the art market, for £2.17 million (around $3.4 million).
[Picasso’s] Course de taureaux, a confident early bull-fighting scene executed in gouache and pastel on board in 1900—realized a bargain $2.66 million (est. $3.5million-$5.5 million). It last sold in Paris at Galerie Charpentier in 1959 for what would be approximately $3.7 million in today’s value.
There are no more reliable names than Picasso and Moore. Nonetheless, the works failed to keep up with inflation over 60 years, in the case of the Picasso. Tully also gives the fullest description of one other work in the sale that was sold successfully against estimates, attracted interest from connoisseurs but failed to appreciate over a 30 year time span:
A stunning and widely exhibited interior scene by Edouard Vuillard, La table de toilette (1895)—bearing intense decorative motifs and blended color schemes that can make a viewer dizzy—sold on the phone for $7.99 million (est. $5 million-$8 million). Once part of a five-panel suite known as “The Album” commissioned by the French patron Thadée Natanson, the group was eventually dispersed, and the Vuillard panel is one of only two that are privately owned, with the rest harbored in museum collections. It last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in November 1989, at the height of that decade’s art boom, for $7.7 million.
Here it might be worth pausing to recognize that seller expectations can have a big effect on the prices achieved. Among the von Furstenberg lots that sold last night for $47.4m was a work previously offered on the market for eight figures and failed to sell. The Houston Chronicle had an inventory of the sale starting with the ill-fated Derain which was bid on with enthusiasm to nearly $7m last night:
Among the top sellers of the von Furstenberg collection, Andre Derain’s “Les voiles rouges” realized $6.9 million; Mark Rothko’s “No. 16/No. 12 (Mauve Intersection) realized $5.4 million (well above its $3 million estimate); Jean Arp’s black granite sculpture “Entitée ailée” realized $3.9 million; and Jean Dubuffet’s “Paysage Aux Petits Météores” realized $2.8 million. Works by Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Emil Nolde did not sell.
Among the works did that sell and sell well were spotted by Judd Tully who caught up with one of the bidders on the Vuillard toward the end of the night, “Found waiting in line for his jacket after the auction, Odermatt […] said, ‘The sale was as good as it could be’:”
Giorgio Morandi’s meditative Natura morta (1955), sold to San Francisco art advisor Steven Platzman for $1.7 million (est. $500,000-$700,000).
Bonnard’s masterful 1912 La Terasse ou Une terrrasse a Grasse, which sold to yet another anonymous telephone bidder for a record $19.6 million (est. $5 million-$8 million).
Even for those who thought the Bonnard was being overlooked among other works getting far more attention—Drue Heinz’s work had an aggressively low estimate and is being sold on the heels of the Tate Modern’s strong show of the artist’s work—the final price was a surprise. The mid-sized, colorful work was sized up by this collector The Art Newspaper spoke to:
“It wasn’t his strongest work—a bit on the saccharine side, maybe, but it was very pretty,” says David Nisinson, a collector and advisor based in New York. Just a few lots later, however, a more demure Bonnard painting of a two seated girls estimated to fetch at least $1m fizzled at only $600,000, proving, as ever, there is no accounting for taste.
On the contrary, the different performances suggest that taste does have market effects. The Heinz Bonnard was hardly unappealing even if it lacked some of the more challenging effects in the painter’s other works. The smaller work, bought by Odermatt, according to Tully, was of more interest to those looking for a work with the artist’s name but none of his signature style.
Far more than taste, the fate of the market is function of the presence of bidders. The revival of the Impressionist and Modern market has been widely credited to the entry of Asian bidders as marginal buyers willing to compete for works that were previously thought to be unappealing to them. Artsy’s Nate Freeman homed in on the issue and offered this detailed account of Chinese (and Japanese) bidding which both provides pressure on the other bidders and a place for bargain hunting.
No one knows the importance of Asian bidders than Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti, here’s Freeman’s take:
Cerutti took a moment during the press conference to breathe a sigh of relief, noting that while Asian participation had been down during the November sales, it was clear in the salesroom on Monday night that collectors in Asia were pinging the phone bank on the big-tickets lots even as the bidding went well into the sale’s uppermost regions. In addition to Wei snagging the top lot of the night and Li underbidding on the evening’s second-biggest lot, a collector on the phone with senior client advisor Sumiko Roberts got a Monet, Coin du bassin aux nymphéas (ca. 1918–19), from an anonymous European collection for a $19 million hammer, or $21.8 million with fees; the collector on the line with Beijing-based Christie’s director Tan Bo got an from the Heinz collection, Nu à la fenêtre (1929), for a $5.5 million hammer, or $6.5 million with fees; and another Monet, Le Palais Dario (1908), went to a collector on the phone with Katsura Yamaguchi, managing director of Christie’s Japan, for a $5.8 million hammer price, or nearly $6.9 million with fees.