ARTnewsletter Archive

Pared-Down London Auctions Reflect Houses’ Cautious Outlook

Collectors, dealers and auction house experts will be watching closely when Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold their first major sales of Impressionist and modern art of the year in London next month.

LONDON—Collectors, dealers and auction house experts will be watching closely when Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold their first major sales of Impressionist and modern art of the year in London next month. The last London sales, in June 2008, took in a record £298 million ($586.2 million), bolstered by strong demand from Russian collectors, with a Claude Monet water lily painting selling for £40.9 million ($80.5 million).

But the economic climate has changed considerably since June. New York’s Impressionist and modern sales in November brought in only $470 million, far below the $800 million low estimate, which had been set during the summer, when the sales were being put together (ANL, 11/25/08). Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s were caught out by the economic downturn and lost millions in guarantees paid to sellers on works that sold either below their estimates or not at all.

As a result, the auctioneers declared they would cut guarantees, stop offering bargains on commission charges to sellers, and tighten credit terms for buyers. Sales in 2009, auction house officials said, would be edited down to suit a contracting market, and estimates would be revised. The big question then became what material auctioneers could mus­ter for the next round of sales, and at what price.

A Drop in Offerings

Not surprisingly, the total number of lots offered at both houses has fallen to 514 from 950 last February; the total estimate for the sales has dropped to £126 million ($185 million) from £224 million ($441.3 million). Hardly any guarantees have been made.

“It was difficult to get business in because people have been distracted by the economy,” says Helena Newman, Sotheby’s vice chairman, Impressionist and modern art worldwide. But the quality of the lots in some cases is as high as could be hoped for: at Sotheby’s, for instance, one of Edgar Degas’s best-known sculptures, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans, carries an estimate of £9 million/12 million ($13.1 million/17.4 million), the same one it would have been given six months ago, Newman says. The seller, John Madejski, who owns Reading Football Club, bought the sculpture in 2004 for £5 million ($9 million).

Another star lot is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Expressionist painting Street Scene, 1913, which last sold at auction in 1997 for a record £1.98 million ($3.2 million), and is expected to sell for £5 million/7 million ($9 million/10.2 million). A work three times its size from the same series sold for $38.1 million to cosmetics heir and Neue Galerie cofounder Ronald Lauder in 2006.

However, the sale also includes less unusual works by Gustav Klimt and Francis Picabia, which were sold in the past two years and have returned to the market estimated to sell for less than before.

Christie’s was likewise “not offered so much as in recent years,” according to international director of Impressionist and modern art Jussi Pylkkänen, who said he had to turn down some consignments because their asking prices were too high. The top-estimated lots at Christie’s, both from the same collection, have not been extravagantly priced in comparison with the amounts they have commanded in the past. A Monet, Dans la prairie, 1876, was bought in London in 1988 for a record £14.3 million ($24.4 million) by Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei before being resold at a loss in New York in 1999, and now carries an unpublished estimate of £15 million. An oil by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, L’abandon (Les deux amis), 1895, was bought in New York eight years ago for $9.3 million, and is now being offered for £5 million ($7.4 million).

One of only two works to be guaranteed, because it was so exceptional, says Pylkkänen, is Edouard Vuillard’s rare painting The Dress­makers, 1890s, which has been on loan to the National Gallery, London, from the British collector who is now selling it. Estimated at £5.5 million/7.5 million, it could be one of the few record-breakers of the series.

But, as at Sotheby’s, Christie’s is also offering works that were sold just last year and have returned to the market rather quickly, though no one is saying whether these are distressed sales. Alexej von Jawlensky’s Girl with Red Bow, 1911, for instance, was featured on the cover of Christie’s catalogue for last year’s sale, where it sold for £2.9 million ($5.8 million). The work is back this year with a low estimate of £1.8 million. In dollar or euro terms, that’s a considerable reduction, as the value of the pound has dropped significantly since last year.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are hoping that the weaker British pound will have a stimulating effect on sales, and that they have adjusted prices to the right level. As ARTnewsletter went to press, the combined low estimate for London contemporary sales is £48.3 million ($70.4 million)—including Phillips de Pury & Company—compared with just over £204 million last February. The number of lots offered is 473, down by more than half from 1,064 last year.