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A Sigh of Relief at Sotheby’s Imp/Mod Season Opener

On Feb. 3, Sotheby’s opened the Impressionist and modern series nervously, with auctioneer Tobias Meyer racing through the opening lots as a crowded saleroom braced for the worst.

LONDON—On Feb. 3, Sotheby’s opened the Impressionist and modern series nervously, with auctioneer Tobias Meyer racing through the opening lots as a crowded saleroom braced for the worst. But the worst never came. Among the early lots were Egon Schiele’s drawing Edith in Hat and Veil, 1915, which sold within the £150,000/250,000 estimate for £241,250 ($342,575), and a watercolor by the artist, Portrait of a Gentleman (Carl Reininghaus), 1910, which sold below the £200,000 low estimate for £181,250 ($257,375). Both were bought by London dealer Richard Nagy, who told ARTnewsletter he was probably fortunate the lots came up so early in the sale, while people were still anxious about the result.

German and Austrian art has been a stronghold of this market in recent years. Oskar Kokoschka’s recently restituted panoramic cityscape, Istanbul I, 1929, sold just above the £1.2 million low estimate for £1.5 million ($2.1 million) with art adviser James Roundell as the underbidder. But Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s small Street Scene, 1913—which last sold in 1997 for a then-record price of £1.98 million ($3.3 million), attracted only one bid to sell for £5.4 million ($7.7 million) on an estimate of £5 million/7 million). The painting’s relation to the Neue Galerie’s much larger Street Scene, bought for a record $38 million in 2006 (ANL, 11/28/06), seemed to have no effect on demand for the work.

Buyers Shun Overpriced Art

Anything at the top end of the market that looked overpriced was rejected. Amedeo Modigliani’s large Cariatide, 1913, is one example: estimated at £6 million/8 million, far more than any example from this series has sold for, it flopped. Four of the six highest-estimated lots failed, the most notable exception being Edgar Degas’s Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, one of 29 posthumous casts from the original plaster. The bronze set a record for a Degas sculpture, selling for £13.2 million ($18.8 million) to an anonymous Asian collector bidding through Yasuaki Ishizaka, Sotheby’s managing director of Impressionist and modern art, Tokyo. The work was consigned by British collector John Madej­ski, who bought it in 2004 for £5.04 million ($9 million).

Three other works in the 29-lot evening sale exceeded estimates. Joan Miró’s large Femmes et oiseaux dans la nuit, 1968, which last sold in 1999 for $883,500, sold now for a double-estimate £2 million ($2.8 million) to the Nahmad family of art dealers against bidding from dealer Jose Mugrabi, bringing a round of applause. René Magritte’s Souvenir de voyage, 1958, which last sold in 2000 for £443,500 pounds ($628,100), sold to art adviser Abigail Asher for £746,850 ($1.1 million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000. In what was the beginning of a solid week for late works by Pablo Picasso, the artist’s small Tête d’homme barbu, 1965, soared to £612,450 ($869,618) on an estimate of £350,000/450,000.

In all, 22 lots, or 76 percent, were sold, bringing in a total of £32.5 million ($46.2 million), which fell well short of the £40 million/55 million estimate, largely because of the failure of some of the higher-estimated lots. Nonetheless a disaster had been avoided, and Sotheby’s staff were relieved and delighted at the result, as were most dealers as they exited the room. While 55 percent of the lots sold went to Europeans (including Russians), 23 percent went to U.S. buyers and 9 percent to Asian buyers. Both of these latter percentages were much higher than last February’s, indicating that the weakness of the pound had been a factor in buying.

At Sotheby’s lower-value day sale, the strength of the middle and lower markets was underscored by 124, or 83 percent, of the 150 lots being sold. The total was £11.3 million ($16.2 million), close to the top end of the £8.2 million/11.4 million estimate. In sharp contrast with the New York auctions, 106, or 85 percent, of the 124 lots sold did so within or above estimates. Late Picasso again came to the fore as Deux têtes, 1964, sold to a Middle Eastern collector for £646,050 ($925,596) on an estimate of £380,000/450,000.

Some estimates had been drastically reduced. Magritte’s gouache Le Séducteur, 1956, which had sold for £702,400 ($1.2 million) in 2006, sold now for £289,250 ($414,408) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000. But other works, bought before the boom of the last two years, yielded gains. Louis Anquetin’s large Au Moulin Rouge, circa 1893, which had gone unsold with a $400,000/600,000 estimate in New York in 2002, sold this time around for a record £493,250 ($706,679) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000. The strong sell-through rate sent attendees off to the Christie’s evening sale with a spring in their step, their confidence that the market was still there restored.

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