ARTnewsletter Archive

A $95.2M Picasso Muse Stars At Impressionist/Modern Auctions

There was good news all around at the Impressionist and modern art evening sales held at Christie’s and Sotheby’s May 2-3. A 1941 painting, Dora Maar au chat, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), fetched an astounding $95.2 million at Sotheby’s, nearly twice its low estimate of $50 million and the second- highest price ever achieved for an artwork

NEW YORK—There was good news all around at the Impressionist and modern art evening sales held at Christie’s and Sotheby’s May 2-3.

A 1941 painting, Dora Maar au chat, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), fetched an astounding $95.2 million at Sotheby’s, nearly twice its low estimate of $50 million and the second-highest price ever achieved for an artwork at auction. Sotheby’s May 3 evening sale brought in a celebratory $207.5 million, exceeding Christie’s impressive $180.2 million total the night before.

Together the evening auctions saw $387.8 million worth of Impressionist and modern works find buyers. The houses sold 91, or 86.6 percent, of the combined 105 lots on offer.

“It’s the old familiar story. The auction houses fetched some high prices and got away with selling some lower-end things,” a major New York dealer told ARTnewsletter. “They found buyers for some works that in a quieter market would have been sent home.”

The solid results were all the more surprising considering that neither of the sales was dominated by estate or single-owner property. Instead they were assembled with works from various owners. The houses liberally issued guarantees—fixed sums promised to consignors prior to the auction regardless of the outcome—in order to win consignments. (Sotheby’s, a public company, reported in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing last month that it had issued $253.8 million in guarantees to win property for this season and for its upcoming November sales.)

Portraits of women dominated the season. Christie’s offered Vincent Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux, 1890, estimated to make $40/50 million, and Picasso’s small Blue Period Portrait de Germaine, 1902, estimated at $12/18 million. The unguaranteed Madame Ginoux was hammered down for $36 million, a disappointing sum given expectations, to audible gasps in the saleroom. But with the buyer’s premium, the $40.3 million price still ranks as the fourth-most-expensive Van Gogh at auction.

Art dealer David Nahmad was the underbidder on the painting at $35 million. The buyer was shipping and real estate tycoon Sammy Ofer, according to several sources who spoke to ARTnewsletter.

Picasso’s somber Portrait de Germaine, which carried a guarantee, sold for a respectable $18.6 million to Acquavella Galleries, but it was outperformed by Picasso’s 1932 Le repos, a brash portrait of a contorted Marie-Thérèse Walter. The picture, which transforms the artist’s lover into a crustacean-like figure, was doggedly pursued by a phone bidder and dealer Larry Gagosian, who won it for $34.7 million with premium (estimate: $15/20 million).

Wassily Kandinsky’s 1927 geometric abstraction Pfeile (Arrows) also proved to be desirable to six bidders who chased the work up to $3.88 million, more than double its estimate. Georges Braque’s 1911 La tasse, sent for sale by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, fetched $2.87 million (estimate: $1.8/2.5 million). Less successful was Paul Gauguin’s Vase de fleurs et gourde, 1890, which the house had guaranteed and the unflappable auctioneer Christopher Burge unceremoniously hammered down at $4 million, way below its $7/10 million estimate.

After the sale Burge pronounced the evening “triumphant.” The auction total—Christie’s highest for Impressionist and modern art since May 1990—demonstrated that “right across the board this is a strong market without being a crazy market,” Burge said. “The buying is intelligent. This is not a market that is in any way out of control.”

Mystery Buyer Spends $102.7M

A mysterious buyer seated in the back of Sotheby’s saleroom, meanwhile, single-handedly contributed nearly half of that firm’s winnings. The unidentified buyer, who paid $95.2 million for the Picasso portrait, spent a total of $102.7 million at the auction.

According to sources, the underbidder— collector Leslie H. Wexner, founder and chairman of Limited Brands, sources say—regretted not having pursued the work further and contacted Sotheby’s after the sale to make sure the firm still had a deal with the buyer of record. Whoever he was, the winner was good for the bill—Sotheby’s insiders told one source that the buyer paid up the next day.

Besides paying $95.2 million for the Picasso portrait (one of many the artist painted of his muse and mistress Dora Maar), he gave $5 million for Claude Monet’s 1883 Près Monte-Carlo, previously owned by Tyco International’s former chairman L. Dennis Kozlowski (estimate: $2/3 million); and $2.5 million for Marc Chagall’s 1978 Le paradis (estimate: $1.5/2 million).

Kozlowski had paid $3.95 million for the Monet about five years ago (ANL, 6/11/02). Another work with a Kozlowski provenance, the Pierre-Auguste Renoir still life Fleurs et fruits, 1889, realized $2.8 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million). Kozlowksi had bought the picture from London dealer Richard Green, who paid $3.6 million for the work at auction in 1997.

After the sale, Sotheby’s chief executive officer William Ruprecht said that it had won the right to sell Picasso’s Dora Maar au chat against the competition because “we had a fundamental understanding of the value of the picture. We thought it was worth substantially more than anybody else.” The firm had given the consignor—the Gidwitz family of Chicago—a reported $50 million guarantee. Typically when a work exceeds its guarantee, the auction house and the consignor share in the proceeds above the promised sum.

At least five bidders pursued the colorful, ornamental picture up from auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s opening bid of $38 million. The work had not been seen in public for more than 40 years and was previously owned by Chicago industrialist Leigh Block. The price is second only to Picasso’s 1905 Garçon à la pipe, which brought a record $104.1 million at Sotheby’s two years ago (ANL, 5/25/04).

A late Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil, 1960, consigned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, made $6.7 million (estimate: $3/5 million), but another work offered by the museum—Chaim Soutine’s circa 1922 Paysage avec des personnages (estimate: $1.5/2 million)—failed to sell.

In this rarified sector of the art market where high-quality works are increasingly scarce, few artists’ records were set. Christie’s achieved none. Sotheby’s achieved two: for Henri Matisse’s voluptuous nude Nu couché vu de dos, 1927, which sold for $18.5 million (estimate: $12/15 million); and for Barbara Hepworth’s Three Obliques (Walk-In), 1969, which was consigned by the ExxonMobil Foundation and sold for $1.47 million (estimate: $1.4/1.8 million).