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Blue-Chip Works Draw High Bids at Sotheby’s $235M Evening Sale

Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale on May 7 took in $235.3 million, well above the low estimate of $203.9 million.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale on May 7 took in $235.3 million, well above the low estimate of $203.9 million. Of 52 lots offered, 41, or 79 percent, were sold. By value the auction was 90 percent sold.

As at Christie’s the previous night, blue-chip works that were fresh to the market drew heated competition and strong prices. The main difference was the change in demand from European buyers, who Sotheby’s said accounted for about 27 percent of buyers. Sotheby’s said about 63 percent of the lots were acquired by buyers from North and South America. (Sotheby’s notes that its geographical breakdown was for the 35 lots sold, as buyers of the remaining six lots preferred not to specify a region).

Noting the high sold-by-value rate, Emmanuel Di-Donna, Sotheby’s vice chairman, Impressionist and modern art worldwide, said there was “a real pursuit of quality.” Sotheby’s said the average lot value was $5.7 million, up significantly from the $3.5 million average value achieved six months ago in New York and last February in London.

One of the works that sparked the most competition—though it was far from the top lot of the sale—was Henri Matisse’s purple, green and pink oil painting Le géranium, 1910, from the estate of collector Catherine Gamble Curran, who had owned it since 1971. The work was estimated at $2.5 mil¬lion/3.5 mil¬lion, and bidding opened at $2.1 million, but competition among at least four bidders quickly drove the price over $6 million. It eventually sold to Acquavella Galleries, bidding via telephone, for $9.6 million including premium.

The top lot of the sale was Fernand Léger’s Étude pour ‘La Femme en Blue’, 1912-13, which brought in $39.2 million (estimate: $35 mil¬lion/45 million) and set a new record for the artist. Sotheby’s had given the consignor a guarantee, an undisclosed minimum price that is paid to the seller regardless of how the work performs at auction. The painting was formerly in the collection of the late Hermann Lange, a wealthy silk manufacturer in Krefeld, Germany, who acquired it around 1928. Painted just before World War I, the work “captures the watershed moment when Léger pushed beyond figuration, a radical gesture which would find full expression in his celebrated Contrastes de formes of 1913,” according to Sotheby’s catalogue.

At least five bidders chased Edvard Munch’s Girls on a Bridge, a 1902 oil that was also guaranteed by Sotheby’s and estimated at $24 mil¬lion/28 million. It sold for a record $27.5 million hammer price, or $30.8 million including premium, to a buyer bidding on the telephone with Caroline Lang, managing director of Sotheby’s Geneva. The consignor of the work, identified as a European collector, paid $7.7 million (estimate: $7 mil¬lion/9 million) for the painting in 1996, when Sotheby’s auctioned it as part of the collection of Wendell and Dorothy Cherry.

Pablo Picasso’s rare painted-bronze sculpture of a bird, La Grue, conceived in 1951-52 and cast between 1952 and 1954 in an edition of four, was also the object of heated bidding. The work was estimated at $10 million/15 million; bidding started at about $8 million and was quickly carried up to $16 million. It sold to a phone bidder, underbid by Swiss dealer Doris Ammann, for the final price, with premium, of $19.2 million.

Picasso’s Le Baiser, 1969, from the collection of Raymond and Patsy Nasher, was also among the top lots, selling for $17.4 million against an estimate of $10 million/15 million to a phone bidder. The Nashers had acquired the painting from Galerie Beyeler, Basel, in 1985.

Works by Kees van Dongen had mixed results. Nu assis, circa 1906-7, estimated at $2.5 million/3.5 million, failed to sell when bids stopped at $2 million. In 1991, the painting brought £220,000 ($355,000) at Sotheby’s London against an estimate of £200,000/250,000. Another van Dongen portrait of a woman fared better, albeit at a lower price. Portrait de femme, from a private New York collection, just reached its low estimate of $700,000; with premium, the work sold for $853,000.

An oil by Edgar Degas, Trois danseuses en rose, circa 1886, was one of the night’s top sellers, taking $8.4 million, in the middle of the $7 million/9 million estimate. The painting had been owned by J. Paul Getty, who acquired it in 1956, and was in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. When the museum sold the work at Sotheby’s London in 1989, it earned £2.3 million ($3.6 million).

On the other hand, a modestly sized Degas bronze, Grande arabesque, troisième temps, conceived circa 1882-95, that was once in the collection of Nathan and Marion Smooke, drew few bids and was bought in at $380,000 (estimate: $500,000/700,000). In 2001, it sold at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, New York, for $240,000, short of the $300,000 low estimate.

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