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Christie’s $491M Auction: ‘Extraordinary Across the Board’

Christie’s evening auction of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 8 took an unprecedented $491.5 million—its highest single sale to date and more than $200 million above its previous record. By value the auction was 93 percent sold. The sale’s high-profile works were heavily representative of German and Austrian Expressionism, including several pieces that recently

NEW YORK—Christie’s evening auction of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 8 took an unprecedented $491.5 million—its highest single sale to date and more than $200 million above its previous record. By value the auction was 93 percent sold. The sale’s high-profile works were heavily representative of German and Austrian Expressionism, including several pieces that recently had been restituted to the heirs of their original owners.

“History was made tonight,” honorary chairman and auctioneer Christopher Burge told a packed press conference following the auction. “It was extraordinary across the board and certainly one [sale] I will never forget.”

Nine auction records were achieved—for artists including Balthus (1908-2001), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918).

Restituted Klimts Earn $192.7M Total

The strength of the sale was fueled in part by four Klimt paintings that recently had been restituted to the heirs of Austrian collector Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a sugar magnate, and his wife, Adele, and sold through Christie’s. The works achieved a combined figure of $192.7 million, against a high estimate of $140 million, and accounted for about 40 percent of the overall total.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, a 1912 portrait, soared past its $40/60 million estimate to sell for $87.9 million, making Klimt the second-most- expensive artist at auction after Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Following a bidding war between two clients, during which the price rose in million-dollar increments from about $60 million to $70 million, a third bidder on the phone entered the fray at $74 million, taking the hammer price to approximately $78 million and ultimately winning the painting.

Christie’s head of Impressionist and modern art Guy Bennett, who handled the winning bid, told ARTnewsletter, “The buyer waited to see how many bidders there were—and when bidding started to slow” between the existing competitors, “that is when the buyer decided to enter.” The entry level of the buyer, who remains anonymous, suggests a willingness to get the work at any price.

In a much-publicized acquisition earlier this year, Ronald Lauder, cofounder of Neue Galerie, Manhattan, and president and chairman emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, purchased Klimt’s earlier, 1907 work Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, for a reported $135 million (ANL, 7/5/06, pp. 6-8). It is now on permanent display at Neue Galerie.

Of the remaining Klimt works at the auction, Birch Forest, 1903 (estimate: $20/30 million), fetched $40.3 million; Apple Tree I, 1912 (estimate: $15/25 million), sold for $33 million; and Houses at Unterach on the Attersee, circa 1916 (estimate: $18/25 million), brought $31.4 million.

Another top seller was Gauguin’s L’homme à la hâche (Man with an Ax), 1891, which earned $40.3 million (estimate: $35/45 million), a new artist’s record. New York dealer David Nash told ARTnewsletter he had expected the Gauguin to sell for a price even higher than it did. The painting, one of the first made by Gauguin upon his arrival in Tahiti, had appeared at auction only once before, in 1893, and later was acquired by the well-known dealer Ambroise Vollard.

“There is much more appetite for trophy paintings” than for average works, says Nash. “I was surprised the Gauguin painting didn’t fall into that category and take off.” However, he notes, “prices were pretty remarkable overall.”

Private dealer Daniella Luxembourg, bidding for Neue Galerie, purchased Kirchner’s Berliner Strassenzene, 1913-14, for a record $38.1 million (estimate: $18/24 million). The work, recently restituted to the heirs of Alfred and Thekla Hess from the Brücke Museum, Berlin, is one of a series of 11 paintings depicting Berlin’s decadence in the years before World War I. The price far surpassed the artist’s previous record of £4.9 million, or $8.8 million, established in London several months earlier at Christie’s February auction of German and Austrian art, for the 1908 oil Frauenbildnis in weissem Kleid.

Lauder was a seller at the sale as well, having consigned three Schiele works from Neue Galerie’s collection to help offset the price of Adele I. One of the paintings, Einzelne Häuser (Häuser mit Bergen), 1915, made a record $22.4 million (estimate: $20/30 million), albeit near the low end of the presale estimate. Zwei Mädchen auf einer Fransendecke, 1911, in gouache, watercolor, ink and pencil on paper, realized $5.6 million; and Kniender Halbakt nach links gebeugt, 1917, took $11.2 million. Collectively the works brought $39.2 million.

The Study II for Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942, by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), sold for $3.3 million, a record for a Mondrian work on paper, to dealer Jeffrey Loria (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

Hours before the auction, Christie’s Burge announced the withdrawal of Picasso’s Blue Period Portrait de Angel Fernández de Soto, 1903. The painting had been consigned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, with the proceeds intended for charity.

Estimated at $40/60 million and expected to be one of the evening’s star lots, the picture was the subject of a title claim brought by Julius Schoeps, Berlin, who alleges the original owner was forced to sell the work to the Nazis in the 1930s.

Two days before the sale, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff blocked the sale of the painting. At a hearing on Nov. 7, one day before the sale, the judge lifted the restriction and allowed the sale to go ahead. Schoeps then filed a second lawsuit on Wednesday in Manhattan State Supreme Court. In a statement released by Christie’s on the afternoon of the auction, the house said the decision to withdraw the work was “the result of 11th-hour claims—claims that Christie’s and the Foundation believe to have no merit—about title to the picture.”

Schoeps’ action drew fire from several restitution experts, who questioned the timing of the claim.

Nonetheless, at the end of the evening, Christie’s Burge commented, “Everything did well. I’ve never seen a sale like the sale tonight.”

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