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Fresh-to-the-Market Works Fuel Record Total at Christie’s

Christie’s reached a historic milestone with its £144.4 million ($283.97 million) Impressionist and modern art sale in London on June 24, breaking the record for any sale in Europe.

LONDON—Christie’s reached a historic milestone with its £144.4 million ($283.97 million) Impressionist and modern art sale in London on June 24, breaking the record for any sale in Europe. Christie’s London also challenged New York’s supremacy as a sales center by realizing more than the equivalent spring sales at Christie’s New York both this year and last—making this the third-highest total for any Christie’s Impressionist sale—and achieving a higher total than any Sotheby’s New York Impressionist sale with the exception of the $286 million sale held in 1990.

All this was due in large part to the inclusion of 17 works from the estate of Indiana collectors J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller, which carried a presale estimate of £40 million/52.6 million ($79 million/104 million) and fetched £67.5 million ($132.8 million), including premium. Sotheby’s had vied hotly for the collection, but Christie’s won the consignment with a guarantee and the promise that this section of the sale would be handled by honorary chairman and star auctioneer Christopher Burge, who was flown in from New York to briefly take the podium from London’s chairman of the Impressionist department, Jussi Pylkkänen.

The decision to sell in London rather than New York was based not on location or currency but on time, owing to the need to pay estate taxes as quickly as possible, Christie’s said, though the performance will only boost London’s reputation as a sales center.

In total, 66, or 81 percent, of the 81 lots in Christie’s evening auction sold. With hardly any of the higher-estimated lots failing to find buyers, the sale comfortably exceeded its presale estimate of £90 million/127 million. By lot, 62 percent of the buyers were from the U.K. and Europe (including Russia and the CIS), 34 percent were from the U.S., and 3 percent were from Asia.

Monet Lilies Score Record $80.5 Million

The key work in the Miller collection, and of the whole sale, was Claude Monet’s large, late water lily painting, Le bassin aux nymphéas, 1919, with an estimate of £18 million/24 million, which was expected to test the record of $41.5 million set at Christie’s New York in May (ANL, 5/27/08). One of only four water lily paintings of that scale (391⁄2 by 791⁄8 inches) that was also signed and dated, it attracted several bidders, three of whom were still in contention for the work as bidding reached £30 million.

The painting was finally bought for a record £40.9 million ($80.5 million), just clipping the record $78.1 million (£46.5 million) for an Impressionist painting, which was paid by the Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito at Sotheby’s New York for Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bal au moulin de la Galette in May 1990. The winning bid was placed by the London-based Canadian art consultant Tania Buckrell Pos of Arts & Management International, taking instructions on her cell phone, against a bidder on the phone with Christie’s international cohead of Postwar and contemporary art Brett Gorvy. Pos, a graduate of Sotheby’s Institute, would give no clue as to for whom she was acting, or what nationality they were, but she did not rule out the possibility that the painting might stay in London.

Altogether, five of the top ten lots were from the Miller collection. A large Henry Moore bronze, Draped Reclining Woman, 1957–58, just outstripped the artist’s previous record to sell for £4.3 million ($8.45 million) on an estimate of £2.5 million/3.5 million. A colorful Pablo Picasso still life, Compotier et guitare, 1924, sold to a U.S. collector bidding against dealer Richard Green for £4.1 million ($8.1 million) on an estimate of £3 million/4 million. A Cubist still life by Picasso, La carafe (Bouteille et verre), 1911–12, sold to a phone bidder against dealer Daniella Luxembourg, for £3.7 million ($7.3 million) on an estimate of £2 million/3 million, and a landscape by Pierre Bonnard, Vue du Cannet, 1927, sold to a European institution for £3.4 million ($6.7 million) on an estimate of £3 million/4 million. All of the Miller works were sold, although three lower-valued works fell below estimate. The most conspicuous of these was Eugene Boudin’s Environs du Faou, which was snapped up by dealer Micky Tiroche for £31,250 ($61,438) against an estimate of £50,000/70,000. But by then, Christie’s had already easily covered its guarantee. As chief executive Edward Dolman remarked to this correspondent, “We’re into the honey now.”

Following the Monet was Edgar Degas’s Danseuses à la barre, circa 1880, a rare prime ballet pastel, which had made a record $1.045 mil¬lion when last auctioned in 1982. Previously in the prestigious Havemeyer Collection and now in an unidentified private collection, it was estimated at £4 mil¬lion/6 million, but rose swiftly to double the high estimate, selling to a bidder on the phone with Gorvy for £13.5 million ($26.5 million), the ¬second-highest price for the artist.

Also among the top lots was an Alberto Giacometti portrait, Yanaihara, circa 1958, hot on the heels of the bullish prices for the artist’s paintings in recent months. Although dark, the image was clearly defined, and it sold for £4.3 million ($8.4 million) to dealer Thomas Gibson, bidding against dealer Alberto Mugrabi (estimate: £3.5 million/5 million).

Three other collections further helped Christie’s on its way. Seven works from the collection of Alfred and Elisabeth Hoh of Fürth, Germany, some of which had been on loan to the German National Museum, Nuremberg, were also given guarantees after competition with Sotheby’s for the consignment. The group realized £12.8 million ($25.2 million) against a presale estimate of £6.6 million/8 million, and set a string of records for Russian modernist paintings. After some uneven results for works by the artist in the recent Russian sales (ANL, 6/24/08), Natalia Goncharova’s vibrant Les fleurs, circa 1912, acquired by the Hohs in 1985 for $42,500, sold for £5.5 million ($10.9 million) to a phone buyer bidding against a Russian expert from Sotheby’s (estimate: £3.5 million/4.5 million).

The same telephone bidder also bought Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s The Rhythm (Adam and Eve), 1910, for £2.7 million ($5.4 million) against the same underbidder (estimate: £1.4 million/1.8 million), as well as Vera Rockline’s The Card Players, 1919, which soared above the artist’s previous record of £265,250 to sell for £2 million ($4 million) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000. Both were semi-Cubist works by Russian artists considered minor figures in the history of modern art, but with prices now well in excess of those of their French counterparts, such as Albert Gleizes or Jean Metzinger.

Eight works from the late Simon Sainsbury, scion of the Sainsbury supermarket dynasty—who bequeathed major works by Monet, Degas, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to the National Gallery, London, and Tate before his death last year—made up a third collection, which realized £10.4 million ($20.5 million). Paul Signac’s Pointillist seascape, Collioure. Les Balancelles, 1887, which had been bought in 1981 for £178,000, sold to dealer Ivor Braka for £2.95 million ($5.8 million) on an estimate of £1.8 million/2.5 million. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s risqué oil sketch Two Women Waltzing, 1894, sold for £1.9 million ($3.8 million) to ¬dealer Richard Nagy (estimate: £400,000/600,000). And Bonnard’s Still Life with Fruits in the Sun, circa 1931, sold for £1.7 million ($3.3 million) to Green (estimate: £500,000/700,000).

Two works did not recoup the prices paid by Sainsbury in the late 1980s, showing how tastes have changed and that this market is still lagging in some areas. Degas’s pastel portrait Hélène Rouart (Mme Marin), 1886, bought in 1987 for £324,500, was unsold at £220,000 (estimate: £400,000/600,000), and Henri Fantin-Latour’s Fleurs (Hortensias, giroflées, deux pots de pensées), 1879, bought in 1988 for $3 million (£1.7 million), sold for £1 million ($2 million) to an Asian buyer (estimate: £600,000/800,000).

The fourth collection, of 11 works from an unnamed European source, contributed an extra £9.5 million ($18.7 million) to the results, topped by Les sapins à Varengeville, 1882, an attractive coastal landscape by Monet. The painting sold for £3.2 million ($6.2 million) on an estimate of £1.5 mil¬lion/2 million to a phone buyer bidding against Green. Green had also been outbid earlier for a tiny, 8-inch bronze family group by Moore from the Miller collection, which sold for £589,250 ($1.2 million) to a telephone buyer (estimate: £300,000/400,000). Green won out, however, on a child portrait by Renoir, Jeune fille au chapeau (Tête de fillette), 1905, which sold for £565,250 ($1.1 million), above its estimate of £300,000/500,000.