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Severini Stars at Sotheby’s $201M Imp/Mod Evening Sale

As with those of Christie’s, Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sales totals in London are running close to those realized in New York.

LONDON—As with those of Christie’s, Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sales totals in London are running close to those realized in New York. Last February’s £144.5 million ($284.9 million) series of sales in London earned more than New York’s $272.6 million May sales, and London’s £129.5 million ($255.8 million) series this June was not far behind.

The £102.2 million ($201 million) evening sale on June 25 was Sotheby’s highest-total June Impressionist sale ever in London, just exceeding its presale high estimate of £97.4 million. The sell-through rate of 91 percent, with only 5 of the 55 lots not selling, was its best ever for a mixed-owner Impressionist sale.

Leading the sale was Danseuse, 1915, a rare Futurist painting by Gino Severini, which had come in with a guarantee and an unprecedented estimate of £7 million/10 million. The previous high for Severini of $3.6 million was set at the Lydia Winston Malbin sale at Sotheby’s New York in 1990, and since then few finished vintage paintings by the Italian artist have been on the market. The estimate, Sotheby’s officials said, was justified not just by the work’s rarity, but also by its quality. It was in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, for many years, and its striking color and modernity would appeal to today’s buyers, just as record-setting works by Franz Marc and Lyonel Feininger have recently. On the night of the sale there were at least four telephone bidders, some believed to be Russian, who took the painting to a new artist record of £15 million ($29.6 million). Like the Monet at Christie’s, this was marketed as a masterpiece that was fresh to the market, and was valued as such.

Another masterpiece, Alberto Giacometti’s 121⁄2-inch bronze Trois hommes qui marchent I, executed in 1948 and cast in the artist’s lifetime, sold in 1994 for $1.87 million. Though small, the work benefited from the recent lift in the market for Giacometti’s work, selling for £9.4 million ($18.6 million), the second-highest price for the artist, to a phone bidder trailed by representatives bidding for Galleri K, Oslo, Norway, and Nancy Whyte, New York (estimate: £4 million/6 million).

A slightly later, 13-inch single figure by Giacometti, Femme nue (Nu debout IV), executed in 1953 but with no casting date given, sold to dealer Larry Gagosian, who manages the artist’s estate, for £657,250 ($1.3 million) on an estimate of £300,000/400,000. Not everything was quite so rosy for Giacometti, though. An oil, Tête noire (Diego), 1951, which it was hoped would ride the recent wave of demand for the artist’s paintings, ended up as one of the few major unsold lots (estimate: £3 million/4 million). Another painting by Giacometti, Coin d’Atelier avec poële et balai, 1961, sold below estimate (before premium) for £657,250 ($1.29 million), yielding no gain on the $1.3 million paid for it in New York in May 2006.

But in general the mood was bullish. Seven works by Pablo Picasso, dating from 1914 to 1968, all sold above estimate. The highest prices were for a highly colored primitivist portrait, Tête de femme (Dora Maar), 1939, from the estate of Scan¬dinavian dealer Haaken A. Christensen—which sold for £7.9 million ($15.5 million) on an estimate of £3 million/5 million—and Mousquetaire. Buste, 1968, one of the artist’s later musketeer paintings, which made the second-highest price on record for an example from this series: £5.5 million ($10.9 million) on an estimate of £3 million/4 million. Both paintings were bought by Georgina Macpherson of Sotheby’s private-client division, who, using two different paddle numbers, acquired ten works during the sale for a total of £22.6 million ($44.5 million), the Picassos being the highest-value lots.

There were few Impressionist pictures to match Christie’s offerings by Monet and Degas. Sotheby’s top Monet, La Plage à Trouville, 1870, had been on the market twice in recent years, selling for £11 million ($16.5 million) in June 2000, and going unsold in November 2006 in New York with a low estimate of $16.5 million. This time the work just scraped by the reduced lower estimate (£7 million/10 million) to sell for £7.6 million ($15 million)—a big loss in pounds sterling, but much less in dollars for the American consignor. By most standards, this price would signal a loss in value for Impressionist pictures, but it was an isolated case.

Most works with a recent market history performed better. A Paul Cézanne still life, Verre et poires, 1879–80, which went unsold in New York in 2000 with an estimate of $3 mil¬lion/4 million, sold for £4.1 million ($8 million) to a U.S. collector (estimate: £2.5 mil¬lion/3.5 million). An early figurative Wassily Kandinsky, Park of St. Cloud–with Horseman, 1906, last sold in 2002 for £267,750 ($378,000), sold here for £1.2 million ($2.3 million) on an estimate of £350,000/450,000. And a portrait by the Russian-born Chaim Soutine, La Jeune polonaise, 1929, which last sold in 2003 for $455,500, sold here for £2.2 million ($4.3 million)—a very handsome and well-timed return.

Sotheby’s had marketed its Fauve paintings, among which it included the Kandinsky, as a strength of the sale. A sunny beach scene by Albert Marquet, circa 1906, sold for £1.2 million ($2.4 million) on a £400,000/600,000 estimate, and a flag-festooned street scene by Raoul Dufy, Le Havre, 14 Juillet, 1906, sold to one of Macpherson’s phone bidders for £1.6 million ($3.1 million) against an estimate of £900,00,000/1.2 million. But highly colored works from this period by Maurice de Vlaminck and Edvard Munch only came in at their low estimates.

It was one measure of the high level of price estimates that 18, or 36 percent, of the sold lots went for prices at or below their low estimates. Among the few major unsold lots was Joan Miró’s pastel Soirée Snob chez la Princesse, 1944, which was also one of only three guaranteed lots (estimate: £3 million/4 million). Helena Newman, Sotheby’s vice chairman of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, said that the low number of guarantees was a matter of circumstance, and not a reflection of company policy.

Unheralded before the sale, works by British sculptors performed well. Henry Moore’s 121⁄2-inch bronze Rocking Chair No. 3, 1950 (estimate: £300,000/500,000), sold to a bidder on the phone with Macpherson for £881,250 ($1.7 million). Barbara Hepworth’s 19-inch wood carving Elegy, 1945 (estimate: £200,000/300,000), sold to an American buyer for £601,250 ($1.2 million), the second-highest price for a carving by Hepworth.

With telephone bids predominant, trade buying in the room was infrequent. A representative of Noortman Master Paintings, Maastricht, bought Camille Pissarro’s Marché à la Volaille à Gisors, circa 1890, one of a limited number of Impressionist works scattered throughout the catalogue, for £577,250 ($1.1 million) on an estimate of £350,00/450,000. New York dealer Nancy Whyte bought Egon Schiele’s Pierrot–Self-Portrait, 1914 (estimate: £1.8 million/2.5 million), for £1.6 million ($3.2 million) and Francis Picabia’s Couple, circa 1924–27 (estimate: £400,000/600,000), for £577,250 ($1.1 million). Art adviser Lorinda Ash bought René Magritte’s La Perspective amoureuse, 1935 (which sold in New York in November 2006 for $3.4 million), for £2 million ($4 million), just within its £1.8 million/2.5 million estimate.

More so than at Christie’s, the buyers at the sale were heavily weighted in favor of Europeans (including Russians), who accounted for 70 percent of the sales by lot, with 28 percent of sales to U.S. buyers and 2 percent to buyers from elsewhere. Sotheby’s did not specify the percentage sold to Russian buyers, but as Sotheby’s cochairman of Impressionist and modern art David Norman told reporters, “A lot of the new money is coming from those speculating on oil prices,” which had just peaked at $142 a barrel. “We used to think of hedge funds when targeting new customers. Now we look for barrels of oil.”

Outside the saleroom, dealer David Nahmad seemed bemused at some of the prices. “Who is buying these things?” he asked. The thought of Russian oil and mining money pumping into the market brought back memories of the late-’80s boom driven by Japanese spending. However, the current market is much more global, and the credit crunch seemingly has not affected the world’s superrich buyers.

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