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Cautious but ‘Capricious’ Bids Mark Christie’s $395M Imp/Mod Auction

Christie’s opened the two-week season on Nov. 6 with an Impressionist and modern art auction that realized $394.97 million. Of the 91 lots on offer, 74 found buyers. Christie’s said the sale total was second only to the $491 million it achieved at the Impressionist sale a year ago this fall, when the house offered

NEW YORK—Christie’s opened the two-week season on Nov. 6 with an Impressionist and modern art auction that realized $394.97 million. Of the 91 lots on offer, 74 found buyers. Christie’s said the sale total was second only to the $491 million it achieved at the Impressionist sale a year ago this fall, when the house offered four restituted works by Gustav Klimt that accounted for $192.7 million, or 40 percent, of the auction (ANL, 11/28/06, p. 2).

Christie’s reports the buyer breakdown by lot: American, 48.5%; European, 24%; Asian, 3%; Russian, 1.5%; Latin American, 1.5%; and “other” (which includes anonymous buyers and those from the Middle East), 21.5%.

The current total fell solidly in the center of the auction house’s $350/480 million estimate. Yet, unlike the often frenetic bidding that would characterize the postwar and contemporary art sales the following week, bidding was methodical and frequently cautious, with buyers taking their time before moving up to the next bid.

“The Impressionist and classic modern market—particularly at the top end—is more sensitive than the contemporary field,” says private New York dealer Nicholas Maclean, of Eykyn Maclean. “So many of the new collectors, including Russian and Arab buyers, are buying more accessible works, whether by Monet or Picasso or [Lyonel] Feininger—either big names or highly colorful works. Many of these buyers are extremely capricious,” however.

The highest-selling work of the night, Henri Matisse’s L’Odalisque, harmonie bleue, 1937, took $33.6 million (estimate: $15/20 million), breaking the artist’s previous auction record of $21.7 million set at Sotheby’s London last June. The Matisse spurred a protracted bidding war between private dealer Franck Giraud, of Giraud Pissarro, Ségalot, Paris and New York, who was seated in the room and talking to a client on a cellphone, and Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department head Guy Bennett, who also was relaying bids for a client on the phone.

As the price rose gradually from $19.5 million to the final hammer price of $30 million, the bidding became slower and slower, prompting auc-tioneer and honorary chairman Christopher Burge to declare at one point, “I’m going slowly enough as it is. I can’t slow down.” As the final price neared, he added, “At some point I’m going to have to sell it,” prompting laughter from the packed saleroom.

Amedeo Modigliani’s 1916 Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff brought the second-highest price of $30.8 million (estimate: $18/25 million). The same picture had fetched $9.35 million at Christie’s New York in 1995, surpassing its high estimate of $8 million (ANL, 11/14/95, p. 2).

Several works by Picasso figured in the top ten. Dealer Larry Gagosian acquired Homme à la pipe, 1968, for $16.8 million (estimate: $12/16 million). When previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1987, the painting had fetched a hammer price of $800,000 (estimate: $400,000/600,000). The highest price for a Picasso at Christie’s was the 1955 portrait of the artist’s then companion (later his wife) Jacqueline Rocquet, Femme accroupie au costume turc, which made $30.8 million. It had been at auction last in 1995, at Sotheby’s, when it took $2.6 million.

Tête de femme (Dora Maar), 1941, doubled the high estimate when it fetched $16.3 million (estimate: $6.5/8.5 million) from a phone bidder.

Records were set for Paul Signac (1863-1935) when Cassis. Cap Canaille, 1889, went for $14 million (estimate: $8/12 million); and for Camille Pissarro when a cycle of four landscapes, Les quatre saisons, 1872-73, the artist’s first major commission, brought $14.6 million (estimate: $12/18 million). After being shown together in 1891, the works were dispersed and then reunited again in 1901. They have appeared twice on the market in the last 26 years, Christie’s says: They garnered $6.8 million at Christie’s in 1991 and $8.9 million, again at Christie’s in 2004, reflecting what the house terms “the solid and steady market performance of a quintessential classical Impressionist work.”

Several pieces by Paul Cézanne also fetched strong prices. Portrait de Vallier, a 1904-06 watercolor depicting the artist’s gardener, sold for a within-estimate $17.4 million (estimate: $15/25 million). A circa 1877 still life, Compotier et assiette de biscuits, was pursued by a handful of buyers after bidding opened at $6 million. It sold for a final price of $12.6 million to a phone bidder, who had jumped in at $10.5 million.

Among other buyers at the sale: Andrew Fabricant, director of the Richard Gray Gallery, New York, bought Alberto Giacometti’s 1950 oil Atelier I for $4.2 million (estimate: $1.4/2.5 million); private dealer Daniella Luxembourg acquired Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1883 oil Nature morte au melon et au vase de fleurs for $2.5 million (estimate: $1/1.5 million), as well as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1893 oil, charcoal and gouache Au bal de l’opéra for $10.1 million (estimate: $6/8 million); and Dominique Levy, of L&M Arts, who won Fernand Léger’s gouache Dessin pour contraste de formes (Composition II), 1913, for $4.7 million (estimate: $1.8/2.5 million).

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