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Avid Bidders Leave Estimates in the Dust at Christie’s Imp/Mod Auction

The evening sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s on May 9 brought in $236.5 million, slipping behind Sotheby’s record total of $278.6 million the previous evening but still among the house’s highest totals ever in this category. Combined with day sales on May 10, Christie’s Impressionist total was $282.4 million.

NEW YORK—The evening sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s on May 9 brought in $236.5 million, slipping behind Sotheby’s record total of $278.6 million the previous evening but still among the house’s highest totals ever in this category. Combined with day sales on May 10, Christie’s Impressionist total was $282.4 million.

Christie’s reports that 52 works sold for more than $1 million each, and 69 percent of the lots surpassed their high estimates. World records at auction were set for Alberto Giacometti, Juan Gris, Joan Miró (for a sculpture by the artist) and Paul Signac.

“The overruling message of tonight’s sale was that great objects continue to bring great prices,” Christie’s auctioneer and honorary chairman Christopher Burge told reporters at the postsale press conference. Commenting on the intense demand from international buyers, Burge said that “bidding was truly global, with considerable activity on the phone and many new collectors vying for works.”

Christie’s reports the buyer breakdown as American, 29 percent; European, 48 percent; Asian, 2 percent; and all others, 21 percent.

Asked about the role of a weak U.S. currency in fueling strong prices, Burge responded, “Obviously, yes, to some extent they do play a role. There was keen interest from European bidders.” On the other hand, he noted, there is still an “enormous number of American buyers” who turn up in London salerooms for the major sales there.

The top three lots in the sale—by Giacometti, Gris and Pablo Picasso—each brought the identical price of $18.5 million. First came Picasso’s 1921 canvas Tête et main de femme, a large neoclassic depiction of a woman’s face and raised hand, painted at Fontainebleau, near Paris (estimate: $14/18 million).

Bidding started around $9 million but eventually climbed above $16 million before being hammered down to a phone bidder.

Also estimated at $14/18 million, and eventually taking $18.5 million, was Juan Gris’ Le pot de geranium, 1915, a Cubist painting that Christie’s called “a virtual guidebook to the artist’s compositional practices.” It too fell to a client bidding via phone. The latest price more than doubled the previous auction figure of $8.5 million.

Earlier, Giacometti’s L’homme qui chavire, a bronze with brown patina conceived in 1947 and cast before November, 1950, had sped past the $6.5/8.5 million estimate; it was pursued by Manhattan dealer Larry Gagosian against a phone bidder, who eventually won out.

The New York dealer David Nash, a cofounder of the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery, told ARTnewsletter he considered the $18.5 million price “irrational.” It’s “a wonderful work,” he declared, “but the price is so far out of line with what a Giacometti sculpture should sell for.”

Other pieces by Giacometti were in demand throughout the sale, but for prices well below the newly set record. One that figured prominently among the top lots was the artist’s sculpture in bronze with black patina of a standing woman, Femme de Venise I, which was conceived in 1956 and cast in 1957. The sculpture took $8.1 million, nearly double its $4.5 million high estimate.

Among other artists’ records set that evening was the $11.7 million realized for Signac’s Arrière du Tub, 1888 (estimate: $6/8 million). The previous record at auction for Signac was $6.6 million.

As happened at Sotheby’s the night before, a work by Amedeo Modigliani was a rare but high-profile buy-in. Bidding was scant for the artist’s La Femme au collier vert (Madame Menier), a 1918 portrait estimated at $12/16 million, that failed to rise above $11 million.

After the sale Burge said that prices for Modigliani recently have “risen so fast, it’s difficult to know where to price them.”

Among other figures at the top end of the sale: $8.9 million was given for Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s nude portrait Grande baigneuse aux jambes croisées, 1904 (estimate: $6/8 million); $6.9 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million) was paid for Marc Chagall’s Musicien, a circa 1928-29 picture of a green-faced violinist; and early on in the sale, $6.8 million was realized for René Magritte’s Le banquet, 1955-57.

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