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Sotheby’s Imp/Mod Sale Moves Past Van Gogh Low to Score $269.7M

The Sotheby’s $269.7 million Impressionist and modern art auction on Nov. 7, its third-highest sale total ever, was overshadowed by the failure of a star lot, Vincent van Gogh’s oil-on-canvas The Fields (Wheat Fields), 1890, one of the last landscapes the artist completed (estimate: $28/35 million). Sotheby’s had given the seller a guarantee (a

NEW YORK—The Sotheby’s $269.7 million Impressionist and modern art auction on Nov. 7, its third-highest sale total ever, was overshadowed by the failure of a star lot, Vincent van Gogh’s oil-on-canvas The Fields (Wheat Fields), 1890, one of the last landscapes the artist completed (estimate: $28/35 million). Sotheby’s had given the seller a guarantee (a minimum price to be paid regardless of how the work performed at auction).

Of 76 lots offered, 56, or 74 percent, were sold. By value, the auction was 68 percent sold. Sotheby’s revealed it had lost $14.6 million on the sale (see separate story). Americans accounted for 44% of the sale proceeds; Europeans, 48%.

Since the auction total fell well below the Sotheby’s presale low estimate of $420 million, and about 25 lots were guaranteed, shares of Sotheby’s plummeted more than 30 percent the next day, to about $36, and many observers questioned whether the auction signaled that the art market as a whole was at the start of a major correction.

Immediately after the sale, Sotheby’s cochairman of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, David Norman, said that artworks had been catalogued and estimated in June, July and August—on the heels of the most successful auction season ever, which saw a total of $1.5 billion in sales and also preceded the subprime credit woes that plagued the financial markets later in the summer. Estimates, he conceded, had simply been “too aggressive,” and the market resisted.

Auctioneer Tobias Meyer opened the bidding on the van Gogh painting at $20 million and proceeded up to $25 million, but no bids were offered, either within the auction room or from the phone banks along the walls. After a few silent and tense moments, Meyer brought down the gavel and announced the work had “passed,” or failed to sell.

While numerous experts have called the painting an important, high-quality work—it was made in July 1890, shortly before the artist’s suicide, and has been exhibited all over the world—they said its failure to sell came down to an aggressive estimate, as well as knowledge among market insiders that it had been offered “expensively” on the private market in recent years.

Says one New York dealer: “Clearly it was a risk, but we’ve seen so many risks come off well” in recent seasons. “I don’t think it was such a crazy decision. It’s a quieter picture, but there is no reason why it wouldn’t appeal” to buyers, especially new collectors looking for a major work.

Sotheby’s, noting that a number of inquiries about the oil came in after the sale, said the house has “complete confidence in this painting. We expect it to reach its price in the future and have plenty of time to wait for it to do so.”

Still, the sale was not without a number of highlights and evidenced rising prices for important works, even for some that had appeared at auction numerous times in recent years. Reports Sotheby’s spokeswoman Diana Phillips: “We sold 10 lots for over $10 million, compared to 7 lots for over $10 million in the spring; 12 lots for over $5 million, with 64 percent selling for over $1 million, about the same percentage as in May.”

Gauguin Painting Leads at $39.2M

The top price of the sale was the $39.2 million given for Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian painting Te poipoi (Le matin), 1892, which some observers expressed doubt about because of its subject matter—a Tahitian woman, nude from the waist down, crouching in a stream.

As with many of the top-priced lots in the sale, the oil on canvas sold but fell short of its $40 million low estimate, underscoring the notion that there was demand for important works but resistance to some of the asking prices. The Gauguin was hammered down at $35 million, indicating that it at least met the reserve (the undisclosed minimum price, below the published low estimate, at which the consignor agrees to sell the work).

The buyer was Hong Kong property developer Joseph Lau, who also acquired Andy Warhol’s portrait Mao, 1972, at Christie’s last November for a then-record $17.4 million (ANL, 11/28/06, pp. 6-7). The Gauguin had belonged to former New York Mets owner Joan Whitney Payson, whose parents had acquired it in 1945.

The second-highest lot was Pablo Picasso’s bronze sculpture Tête de femme (Dora Maar), conceived in 1941 and cast in 1950 in an edition of two. It sold for $29.2 million, setting a record for a Picasso sculpture, to dealer Franck Giraud on behalf of a U.S. collector and was underbid by the Nahmad family of art dealers. The work had been guaranteed and carried a $20/30 million estimate.

A record was set for Franz Marc when Der Wasserfall, a 1912 oil estimated at $20/30 million, took $20 million from a European collector. The same buyer, bidding on the phone via a Sotheby’s representative, also won Hermann Max Pechstein’s Frühling (Springtime), circa 1919, for $1.3 million (estimate: $1/1.5 million).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Femme dans un jardin, 1873, exemplified the steadily rising valuation of an important work; it sold for $12.2 million, just above the high estimate of $12 million. It came up at auction just over a year ago at Sotheby’s London, where it fetched $9 million. In 2000 the same painting had made $7 million at auction at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg (now Phillips, de Pury & Company).

A record for a work on paper by Egon Schiele was the $11.4 million given for Self-Portrait with Checkered Shirt, a 1917 goauche, watercolor and black crayon on paper, which was bought by dealer Philippe Ségalot for $11.4 million, generously above the $6.5 million high estimate.

Joan Miró’s 1936 gouache Le Fermier et Son Épouse sold within estimate for $10 million (estimate: $9/12 million); and Lyonel Feininger’s 1909 oil The Green Bridge made $10.1 million, albeit below the $12.5 million low estimate. Similarly, Henri Matisse’s Espagnole (Buste), 1922, made $10.1 million, missing the $12 million low-estimate mark.

Among other buyers, the Nahmads bought Camille Pissarro’s Paysanne bêchant, 1882, for $2 million (estimate: $1.8/2.5 million); and Alfred Sisley’s Le marronnier à Saint-Mammés, 1880, for $1.7 million.

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