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London Sales: Savvy Buyers Seek the Spectacular

The select Part One Impressionist and modern art sales held in London at Sotheby’s and Christie’s on June 20-21 realized a combined total of £77.4 million ($140.9 million). The total was up marginally from February, but down from the £90.5 million ($166 million) tallied last June for a similar number of lots.

LONDON—The select Part One Impressionist and modern art sales held in London at Sotheby’s and Christie’s on June 20-21 realized a combined total of £77.4 million ($140.9 million). The total was up marginally from February, but down from the £90.5 million ($166 million) tallied last June for a similar number of lots.

Most experts agree that the market is suffering from a lack of supply of Impressionist masterpieces by top-tier artists, and that those that do appear are generally consigned to New York. The London sales did offer some exceptional works by less-celebrated Post-Impressionist, Fauvist and early modernist artists, and a handful of these attained record prices. Otherwise there were too many poor-quality works elevated to evening-sale status, and too many recently recycled works that had failed to recoup money for their owners, thus producing a dampening effect overall.

Including Part Two and works-on-paper Impressionist sales, the combined takings were £105.5 million ($192.4 million), with an average 64.5 percent of the 806 lots sold. The average selling rate for the Part One sales was 74 percent, denoting a market that was stronger at the upper end.

“The sales always depend on what the auction houses are able to collect,” says private New York dealer Nancy Whyte. “The pieces that are fresh to the market and of good quality have plenty of bidders and therefore achieve prices over the high estimate. The more mediocre pieces end up either unsold or achieve a modest price. There is still a discriminating audience.”

Meanwhile, five contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, held from June 22-24, amassed an impressive £59.6 million ($110 million)—surpassing the record £54 million ($99.9 million) achieved here in February. The two Part One sales fetched £43.75 million ($79.6 million) for 120 lots offered, compared to £39.8 million ($73.6 million) in February for 119 lots and £28.7 million ($52.2 million) a year-ago June for 92 lots.

Market share was divided fairly evenly over the week: Sotheby’s established a vibrant lead with about 60 percent of the Impressionist and modern sales, and Christie’s took about 55 percent of the postwar and contemporary art sales.

“There were some very strong prices,” says New York gallery owner Christophe van de Weghe. He points to a Bruce Nauman sculpture, Hanging Heads #1, 1989, one of the most hotly contested sculptures at Christie’s June 23 evening sale, which soared over-estimate to £680,000 ($1.2 million). “It shows that when you have a spectacular piece,” he told ARTnewsletter, “people are willing to pay well over double the higher estimate.”

Van de Weghe suggests that robust prices for pieces by Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol were all well-deserved. However, he notes, rapidly rising prices for the works of some young, cutting-edge artists give cause for concern: “It’s pretty amazing when you see an artist who has been around for not even 10 years sell for almost $1 million, and then you have an absolute master like [Jean] Dubuffet, who is collected by all the major museums in the world, bringing $500,000/1 million for a very good work.”

Van Dongen Work Sets $9.2M Record at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s kicked off the week on June 20 with a healthy £45.9 million ($83.8 million) Part One Impressionist and modern art sale in which the top lot, Kees van Dongen’s Fauvist Femme au grand chapeau, 1906, established an artist’s record of £5 million, or $9.2 million (estimate: £3/4 million), from an anonymous phone bidder. New York dealer Nancy Whyte was in contention up to £3.5 million for this painting that had last sold in 1997 for £2.2 million ($3.7 million).

Pointillist paintings were among the strongest performers: Vendages (Var), 1892, one of the largest pieces by Henri Edmond Cross to come to the market, was being sold by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It brought a record £2.97 million, or $5.43 million (estimate: £1.3/1.8 million), from Philadelphia collector Robert Toll.

Paul Signac’s river view Les Andelys. Les Laveuses, 1886, was sought by two phone bidders before fetching a record £3.6 million, or $6.66 million (estimate: £1.5/2 million). The anonymous buyer, bidding through Sotheby’s Geneva representative Caroline Lang, also picked up two other of the four top-selling lots—Maurice Vlaminck’s Fauvist Le jardinier, 1904, for £4.8 million, or $8.8 million (estimate: £2.5/3.5 million), against London dealer Daniel Katz; and Paul Gauguin’s Nature morte aux mangos, circa 1891-96, for £3.6 million, or $6.5 million (estimate: £3/4 million).

The third record price to fall was for Le Corbusier’s large 1935 canvas Deux femmes, la corde et le chien, which brought £792,000, or $1.4 million (estimate: £400,000/600,000), from Berlin dealer Michael Haas. He also acquired a small 1909 drawing by Piet Mondrian for £50,400, or $91,700 (estimate: £40,000/60,000).

Also among buyers at the sale was Daniella Luxembourg, who acquired Edgar Degas’ Portrait de femme assise, 1887, for £433,600, or $789,150 (estimate: £300,000/500,000), and was the underbidder on a 1922 watercolor, Ohne Titel (Untitled), by Wassily Kandinsky, that went for £456,000, or $829,920 (estimate: £300,000/400,000).

Marc Blondeau paid a double-estimate £366,400 ($666,850) for Félix Vallotton’s Arrivée de Bateaux, Dieppe, 1903. And international dealer Ezra Nahmad acquired Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Les laveuses, circa 1912, for £1.6 million ($2.98 million), far below the £2/3 million estimate. This painting was last sold in 1993, when the market was in depression, for £3.3 million ($5 million), to an American collector.

Elsewhere at Sotheby’s, comparative prices showed more losses for sellers. Paul Klee’s watercolor Rooftop Flower, 1919, was sold to a phone buyer, bidding against Thomas Gibson, within estimate for £299,200—not even £20,000 more than it had made in 1998. A drawing by Pablo Picasso, Jeune fille accoudée, 1903-04—sold in 2001 for £660,000 plus commission—now brought only £456,000 ($829,920).

Faring slightly better were Lyonel Feininger’s Velocipedists, 1910, which took £1.9 million, or $3.5 million (estimate: £1/1.5 million)—twice the amount it had achieved back in 1993. It went to a phone buyer bidding against Oslo’s Galerie K.

Juan Gris’ Paysage et maisons à Céret, 1913, also doubled the price it had made in 1995, selling for £3.2 million, or $5.9 million (estimate: £3/4 million). Vincent van Gogh’s Femme dans un jardin, 1887, however, made only a modest gain over its £2 million ($3.4 million) price in 1996, going for £2.9 million ($5.3 million).

Such price volatility may be acceptable to serious buyers who are long-term collectors—but will do nothing to attract sellers or the investment-conscious collectors who are looking for the quicker returns the contemporary market promises.

Some Surprises at Christie’s

Christie’s £31.6 million ($57.5 million) Part One sale on June 21 showed little improvement over sales of the previous two seasons, coming in just above the £29 million low estimate. The top lot was a small head-and- shoulders Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919, by Amedeo Modigliani. Pursued by Swiss dealer Doris Ammann, it eventually fell to a private European phone buyer for £3.2 million, or $5.9 million (estimate: £1.5/2 million). With the exception of a Henri Matisse portrait that had been seen around once too often (estimate: £1/1.5 million), the majority of the highest -estimated lots found buyers.

Most impressive were Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Expressionist oil-on-canvas In der Dämmerung, 1912, which fetched a record £2.5 million, or $4.5 million (estimate: £1.2/1.6 million); and Alexander Archipenko’s extremely rare collage Woman, 1918, which had been on loan to the Tel Aviv Museum from the Erich Goeritz collection, and realized a record £1.46 million, or $2.67 million (estimate: £900,000/1.2 million). The buyer was former Villa Grisebach director Peter Elz, now an art consultant,who was bidding for a Swiss collector.

After the sale, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s Europe, told ARTnewsletter that the painting was destined for a foundation that collects “only the highest quality.”

Other buyers in the room were: London dealer Angela Neville, who bought Henri Fantin-Latour’s Pois de senteur, 1888, within its high £300,000 estimate for £288,000 ($524,160); James Roundell, who purchased Ernst Barlach’s bronze Der singende Mann, 1928, within its high £200,000 estimate for £176,000 ($320,300); Daniella Luxembourg, who won Wassily Kandinsky’s Sept, 1943, within its £300,000/400,000 estimate for £366,400 ($666,850); and the Vedovi Gallery, Brussels, which outbid Roundell to buy René Magritte’s La Domaine d’Arnheim, circa 1944, for £478,400 ($870,690), comfortably above the high estimate of $400,000.

As at Sotheby’s, Kees van Dongen was very much a flavor of the week. One U.S. collector paid a double-estimate £926,400 ($1.69 million) for van Dongen’s recently discovered and undated oil-on-canvas La danse de Carpeaux (Le bal masqué à l’opéra); another spent a double-estimate £1.3 million ($2.3 million) for La dormeuse, Mika nue sur un divan, 1908. This too was twice the price the painting had fetched in 1995—but for most other works that had been at auction in the last ten years, sellers were taking

a loss.

Vincent van Gogh’s Une liseuse de romans, 1888, last sold in 2003 for £3.3 million, now fetched just £2.3 million ($4.3 million), below its low estimate of £2.5 million. Joan Miró’s Montroig, La Rivière, 1917, last sold in 2002 for $1 million (estimate then: $700,000/900,000), now fetched £512,000, or $931,840 (estimate:£500,000/700,000). And Maurice Vlaminck’s Péniche sur la Seine, 1905, last sold in 2001 for £4.7 million, took £3.1 million, or $5.7 million (estimate: £2.8/3.5 million) from a private Asian collector.

Two other works went to the Asian trade: a 1924 Matisse still life, Nature morte, fleurs et tasse, which fell for a mid-estimate £2.5 million ($4.5 million); and Camille Pissarro’s Paysanne se chauffant, 1883, which made £848,000 ($1.5 million). Pylkkänen commented after the sale on the “truly international” scope of the bidding, adding “a lot of the buyers hadn’t even seen the objects.”

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