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Cautious Buying at Impressionist and Modern Season Opener

Sotheby’s opened the season with its evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 5, and the mood in the saleroom was decidedly cautious.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s opened the season with its evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 5, and the mood in the saleroom was decidedly cautious. The house sold 29, or 81 percent, of the 36 lots offered to realize a total of $61.4 million. With a total estimate of $81.5 million/118.8 million, however, the auction was only 59 percent sold by value.

The top lot was Piet Mondrian’s painting Composition in Black and White, with Double Lines, 1934, in its orignal frame. The work was acquired by Hungarian-born engineer, artist and inventor Eugene Lux soon after it was painted and passed down to his heirs, who consigned the work to the sale. The painting was estimated at $3 million/5 million, and bidding opened at $2 million. The price rose quickly, with at least six bidders competing for the work at one point. The painting eventually sold to an unidentified man at the back of the saleroom for $9.3 million with premium, underbid by the Nahmad family of art dealers.

After the sale, Emmanuel Di-Donna, Sothe­by’s vice chairman, worldwide, and director of evening Impressionist sales, New York, credited the offerings’ “provenance, freshness to the market and attractive estimates” as the sources of their appeal.

Several works by Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka from the collection of fashion designer Wolfgang Joop also drew healthy demand, indicating how difficult it was for auction houses to gather material this season, as de Lempicka is not typically an artist who gets star billing at major evening sales of Impressionist and modern art. Nevertheless, the works sparked competitive bidding, selling for a total of $13.8 million against a combined estimate of $10.6 million/15.7 million.

The $4.9 million price paid by London dealer Ivor Braka for Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, 1932 (estimate: $4 million/6 million), set a new, if short-lived, record for a work by de Lempicka (it was broken the following night at Christie’s). Braka was also the underbidder for the artist’s Portrait de la Duchesse de la Salle, 1925, which sold to a phone bidder for $4.45 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million).

Property from the H. O. Havemeyer Collection also ignited stiff competition. Claude Monet’s Voilier sur le petit bras de la Seine, Argenteuil, 1872, which had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for the past 15 years, was estimated at $1.2 million/1.8 million. Bidding opened at around $900,000 and rose rapidly to a hammer price of $3.05 million. With premium, the Nahmad family won the painting for $3.5 million. Camille Pissarro’s Inondation à Pontoise, 1882, estimated at $900,000/1.2 million, sold to a phone bidder for a ­double-estimate $3 million. La Gardeuse de Chèvre, 1881, another work by Pissarro, sold for $2.5 million, clearing the $1.8 million high estimate. The three lots from the Havemeyer collection took a total of $9 million, well above the combined estimate of $3.5 million/4.8 million.

A Pissarro from another private collection, La Vallée de la Seine aux Damps, jardin d’Octave Mirbeau, 1892, which was the first offering of the sale, fetched $2.5 million (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million). Di-Donna noted that the work had sold at auction in 2006 at Christie’s in London for £960,000 ($1.8 million). Despite the current economic climate, he emphasized that there was a “linear progression” in prices, particularly for high-quality works with good provenance.

All four of the Pissarros offered in the auction sold. Semeur et laboureur, Montfoucault, 1875, however, drew less intense bidding and was sold for a hammer price of $800,000, falling at the low estimate. With premium, the price was $962,500.

The sale was marred by the failures of two high-profile lots, which appeared on the covers of the catalogue—Alberto Giacometti’s bronze Le Chat, conceived in 1951 and cast in 1959, and Pablo Picasso’s La fille de l’artiste à deux ans et demi avec un bateau, 1938, a portrait of his daughter Maya—each aggressively estimated at $16 million/24 million. The Giacometti drew one bid, near $13.5 million, but was soon bought in; the Picasso met with silence from the room and was passed over near its opening bid of $12.5 million. The latter work was consigned by William Achenbaum, a real estate developer who was a victim of Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion investment fraud. Observers said that though both pieces were great works of art, the estimates were simply too high.

Following the sale, Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the Impressionist and modern department, New York, conceded that there were “some disappointments” among what he viewed as “overall very positive results.” Shaw cited the 81 percent sold-by-lot rate, which he said had been a key goal for the auction house. “We learned a lot in recent sales,” he said. “We’re recalibrating where the market is, where prices are.”

At the post-sale press conference, Sotheby’s executives insisted that, given the general absence of guarantees, it was their “most profitable result in New York since last spring,” when the Impression­ist and modern total was more than three times as high but brought a margin of only 8 percent.

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