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Christie’s $277M Imp/Mod Auction Opens Season on a Strong Note

Christie’s evening auction of Impressionist and modern art on May 6 opened the two-week spring season and was watched closely as a barometer of the health of the art market.

NEW YORK—Christie’s evening auction of Impressionist and modern art on May 6 opened the two-week spring season and was watched closely as a barometer of the health of the art market. Although the $277.3 million total was down sharply from the $395 million total achieved in November and bidding seemed cautious at times, strong prices for top-quality works and a string of records—including new highs for Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró and Auguste Rodin—gave the market a shot of confidence and set the tone for the two weeks ahead. Of 58 works on offer, 44, or 76 percent, were sold.

“I think everyone was somewhat surprised by the strength of the sale, given the outside economic climate,” London dealer James Roundell told ARTnewsletter. Prices and momentum seemed to get stronger as the auction went on, he said. “Christie’s was not the easiest sale, and people relaxed a bit more the next night at Sotheby’s. That sale seemed smoother,” he added. Roundell said the contemporary sales would most likely not have gone as well as they did if the Impressionist and modern series had gotten off to a rocky start.

Another notable aspect of Christie’s sale was the strong demand from European buyers, and Russians in particular, who Christie’s said accounted for 52 percent of buyers, compared with U.S. buyers, who made up only 32 percent.

“Obviously the [weak] dollar played some part” in the results, said auctioneer and Christie’s honorary chairman Christopher Burge. “We had a pretty good idea of what would happen. The results were pretty much in line with expectations, with a few pleasant surprises.”

The top lot was Monet’s Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil, 1873, which took a record $41.5 million, surpassing the artist’s previous high of $36.6 million, set at Sotheby’s London last June. The work is one of the best-known and most important canvases from Monet’s work in Argenteuil in the 1870s. The bridge depicted in the painting was rebuilt after having been destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and the painting was seen as “a celebration of France’s rapid revival after the country’s disastrous defeat in the war,” according to Christie’s catalogue. The painting was consigned by the Nahmad family of art dealers, who acquired it at Christie’s London in November 1988 for £6.8 million ($12.4 million).

The second-highest price was for a Giacometti bronze, Grande femme debout II, conceived in 1959-60 and cast in 1960. It sold to the Gagosian Gallery for a record $27.48 million, surpassing the previous record of $18.6 million, set at Christie’s last May. Another work by Giacometti also figured among the top lots: La Place II, a bronze sculpture conceived in 1948 and cast in 1949, featuring five of the artist’s signature elongated figures on a thick base, sold for $14.6 million with premium, against an unpublished estimate of about $12 million. Bidding started at about $8 million and rose steadily. Dealer David Zwirner bid up to $12 million, but the work eventually went to a buyer on the telephone with Christie’s Impressionist and modern department co-head Guy Bennett.

Rodin’s Eve, grand modèle-version sans rocher, a bronze with brown patina conceived in 1881 and cast in 1897, brought $19 million, far past the estimate of $9 million/12 million. Bidding started at about $6 million and quickly rose to $12 million, with the lot eventually selling to a phone bidder for the hammer price of $16.9 million. The sculpture had previously been sold at Christie’s in 1999 for $4.8 million.

Another record was the $17 million (estimate: $12 million/16 million) paid for Miró’s La caresse des étoiles, 1938, a colorful oil that had formerly been owned by television executive Nathan Halpern. The painting, which had remained out of sight for decades after Halpern acquired it from the Galerie Pierre, Paris, around 1945, appeared at auction just four years ago in the collector’s estate sale at Christie’s. It sold for $11.8 million at that sale, against an estimate of $6 million/8 million.

Pablo Picasso’s oil Partition, Guitare, Compotier, 1924, sold for a hammer price of $11 million, under the estimate of $12 mil¬lion/16 million. With premium, the final price was $12.4 million. A 1954 Picasso painting, Claude et Paloma dessinant, fetched $8.9 million with premium, within its estimate of $7 million/10 million.

Henri Matisse’s 1935 Portrait au manteau bleu, an early depiction of Lydia Delectorskaya, his young studio assistant and one of his favorite models, sold for $22 million against an unpublished estimate of about $17 million.

Some consignors had clearly dropped their reserves on some works in the days and weeks leading up to the sale. Paul Gauguin’s Te fare Hymenee (La maison des chants), painted in Tahiti in 1892, carried an estimate of $10 million/15 million. Bidding started at about $4.8 million and the hammer came down soon thereafter at $7.5 million, well short of the low estimate. But the painting was declared sold, rather than “passed,” or bought in, as most works are when the final bid falls far short of the low estimate. With premium the painting brought $8.44 million, indicating that the consignor, who paid £6.6 million ($11.22 million) for it at Sotheby’s London in 1989, took a loss on the work.

Several works in the sale were bought by the same registered bidder, mostly for prices below or near the low estimates. These included the Gauguin; Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Au Théâtre, la loge, 1894, for $6.1 million (estimate: $5 mil¬lion/7 million); Edgar Degas’s Trois danseuses, circa 1899, for $4.3 million, short of the $4.5 million/6.5 million estimate; and Matisse’s pastel drawing La Danseuse, 1927, for $8.4 million (estimate: $8 million/12 million).

In several cases, buyers resisted steep markups on works that had been sold at auction in recent years. The Matisse pastel, for example, had been sold before at Christie’s in May 2001 for $5.3 mil¬lion, against an estimate of $3 million/4 million.

One high-priced and high-profile casualty of the sale was Kees van Dongen’s Anita en almée, a 1908 portrait of a standing seminude woman with raised arms who peers out at the viewer from under her veil. The painting was marked as guaranteed (which means Christie’s gives the seller an undisclosed minimum sum regardless of how the work fares at auction), and carried an estimate of $12 million/16 million. Bidding topped out at $10.5 million, and the work went unsold. Experts said buyers thought the asking price was simply too high, especially considering that it sold for $1.7 million in November 1995 at Sotheby’s.

Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries, New York, was not surprised that the work didn’t sell: “I think that showed marketing cannot totally carry value,” he said.

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