Christie’s has unveiled a painting by Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte set to highlight the London session of its global ONE sale of modern and contemporary art scheduled to take place on July 10.
Standing 4¼ by 5⅓ feet, L’arc de triomphe depicts a single tree set against a background of leaves, in a motif typical of work from the artist’s postwar period. The work is expected to sell for £6.5 million–£9.5 million ($8.1 million–$11.9 million).
The painting was originally in the collection of Harry Torczyner, Magritte’s close confidant and American attorney, who acquired the piece in April 1962, just after its March completion. A Belgian native who was key in promoting Magritte’s work in America, in 1994 he published his correspondence with the artist in Magritte-Torczyner: Letters Between Friends.
The Torczyner estate sale at Christie’s New York in November 1998 featured a total of 14 Magrittes, including Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952, which went for $6.5 million, against a presale estimate of $2.5 million–$3.5 million; that painting now resides in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. L’arc de triomphe last came to market in 1992, when it sold at Christie’s New York for $1.1 million. The current seller acquired it around 2000.
The painting carries an expansive exhibition record, first shown at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Charleroi in 1962, and in the “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” show that traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. Famed New York dealer Sidney Janis showed the work in a solo survey dedicated to the artist in December 1977, and the painting was last shown publicly in 1992 at the Christie’s sale.
“The choice of title suggests Magritte believed that this composition was a triumph in his quest to answer the problem of how to represent trees whilst also revealing the mystery of reality,” said Olivier Camu, deputy chairman, Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s London in a statement. For Magritte, the forest motif represents, Camu observes, “nature as an essential theme in his perception of reality.”
Magritte has led the recent market rise for Surrealism. “The interest in Surrealism got gradually stronger with the increasing influx of buyers, be they collectors of modern art because of our focus on the movement or collectors of post-war and contemporary art as they realize that so many ideas of Surrealism are at the source of contemporary art,” said Camu.
The artist saw a new record price in November 2018, when Le principe du plaisir from 1937—a portrait of Edward James with an aura of light replacing his head—sold for $26.8 million in a Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern evening sale, handily exceeding its estimate of $15 million–$20 million. The sale set Magritte among the top-selling modernists currently on the market.
According to Camu, there exist 19 other works comparable in size, with 15 held in museum collections. Among those that feature the central tree motif is Magritte’s 1954 canvas L’empire des lumières, which resides in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The work being offered by Christie’s is one of five comparable pieces still in private hands, including Le seize septembre from 1957, which sold at Christie’s New York in November 2019 for $19.6 million, nearly doubling its high estimate of $10 million.
The demand for Surrealist works has expanded since Camu established the Art of the Surreal sale in February 2001. Since then, Camu notes, the “market for Surrealism has been rising steadily. Surrealist artists were a major influence on post-war American abstract expressionism with their early ideas of chance-led application of paint.”
“Magritte in particular has risen even more strongly than others maybe because he is such an intellectual and poet. And yet, Magritte is accessible to all,” said Camu, adding that the painter’s “way of subverting reality” through “impossible combination” of realistic images drives his value among collectors.
The Christie’s ONE sale will be the auction house’s test of both the new evening sale format and the market at large. With auction houses now opening in Europe following the lift of local coronavirus restrictions, Christie’s will preview the work in its King Street location by appointment.