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Christie’s Evening Sale Struggles Despite Lower Expectations

On June 23 Christie’s posted its lowest total for an evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in London since June 2005.

LONDON—On June 23 Christie’s posted its lowest total for an evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in London since June 2005. The auction realized £37.1million ($60.4million), exceeding its low estimate of £36million only by virtue of the buyers’ premium. As in February’s Impression­ist and modern sales, the number of lots was reduced from that of the previous year, to 44 from 81 last June (last February’s sale had 47 lots), though even this was not enough to prevent mediocre works from seeping into the auction.

In all, 30, or 68 percent, of the lots were sold. By value the auction was 84 percent sold. ­Middle-market works—those with estimates in the range of £200,000/700,000—experienced the most difficulty. What’s more, half of the sold lots fetched hammer prices either at or below their low estimates, indicating that reserves had been reduced before the sale. “It was very difficult to get pictures in for this sale, and in the end we didn’t edit it tightly enough,” Thomas Seydoux, Christie’s international head of Impressionist and modern art, told ARTnewsletter. “The announcement of Guy Bennett’s departure from Christie’s just before the sales was also a distraction.” Seydoux will become Christie’s the sole international head of the Impressionist and modern department once Bennett, international co-head of the department in New York, leaves in July.

The ten highest-estimated lots had the best sell- through rate, with only one, Le pot de pivoines, 1920, an Henri Matisse still life, being bought in, on an estimate of £2.3million/2.8million ($3.5million/4.2million). Another high-estimated lot, Camille Pissarro’s recently restituted Le Quai Malaquais et l’Institut, 1903, was estimated at £900,000/1.5million ($1.4million/2.3million) but was withdrawn when a dispute surfaced within the consignor’s family. A third, Pierre Bonnard’s Symphonie Pastorale (Campagne), 1916–20, from the Bernheim-Jeune Collection, never left France since the French government declared it a work of national importance and preempted the sale. The government was in the process of acquiring the work for the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Leading the sale was one of the few Impression­ist pictures offered, Claude Monet’s sun-dappled landscape Au Parc Monceau, 1878, which had last been sold in June 2001 by Sotheby’s in London, where it fetched £3.7million ($5.3million) after a bidding battle between London dealers Richard Green and Henry Neville of Mallett, London and New York. Neville won the painting on behalf of U.S. collector Brook J. Lenfest, who subsequently loaned it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This time around, the painting demonstrated how the demand for top-notch Impressionist paintings has grown, selling for £6.3million ($10.3million) on an estimate of £3.5million/4.5million to a phone buyer, against bidding from Jonathan Binstock, senior vice president of Citigroup’s Citi Family Office Art Advisory Service.

The only other work of note to surpass estimates was Joan Miró’s small Peinture (Femme se poudrant), 1949, which had been off the market for 40 years. The painting sold to the Nahmad family of art dealers, against competition from Eleanor Acquavella, of Acquavella Galleries, New York, for £3.96million ($6.45million) on an estimate of £2.2million/2.8million. The Nahmads also bought Mont-roig, le pont, 1917, an early Miró landscape, for £541,250 ($881,696), in the middle of the £400,000/600,000 estimate. Described as “among the most important of his career” by Christie’s officials, the work was the closest thing to a ­modern-art classic in the sale.

Strong Showing for German Artists

Modern German art also figured among the top lots, notably Franz Marc’s oil painting Jumping Horses, 1910. Although it is a rare Divisionist work by the artist, it sold for a reasonable £3.7million ($6.1million), within the £3million/4million estimate, to a European private collector bidding against London-based art adviser Viola Raikhel.

Alexey von Jawlensky’s Hélène, 1911, was one of several works by the artist on offer, and was back on the block after having been sold at Christie’s in February of last year for £1.59million ($3.1million) against an estimate of £1.7million/2.5million. The buyer then, described as a private European collector, had also bought another Jawlensky, Woman with Red Bow, for £2.9million ($5.7million), but defaulted on the payments, according to Christie’s. Woman with Red Bow was resold at Christie’s in London this February for £1.9million ($2.8million) with the same estimate as before (£1.8million/2.5million). Similarly, Hélène was reoffered now with a virtually unaltered estimate of £1.6million/2.4million; it came much closer to its last price, however, selling for £1.7million ($2.8million). Two later Jawlensky works—Mystischer Kopf: Frauenkopf auf blauem Grund and Mystischer Kopf: Frauenkopf auf rotem Grund, both circa 1917—sold far below their estimates, however. Another work of a less rare type than the earlier Hélène, Heilandsgesicht: Kopf “Lichte Ruhe,” circa 1921, which last sold at Christie’s in London in June 2007 for £264,000 ($522,720), drew no bids on an estimate of £250,000/350,000.

Another work in the German section that performed well was the Egon Schiele drawing Young Boy Lying on His Stomach, 1918, which had been shown by London dealer Richard Nagy at the European Fine Art Fair, Maastricht, the Nether­lands, last March. Priced then at £300,000 ($430,000), the work sold now for £433,250 ($705,764) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000.

Another top-selling work, if not an early rarity, was Fernand Léger’s Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger), 1930, a highly decorative commissioned painting that had been donated to and then deaccessioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The work sold for £1.2million ($1.98million), at the bottom of the £1.2million/1.6million estimate, to London dealer Alon Zakaim. Ten years ago it had fetched $398,000 at Christie’s in New York, so this price represented a healthy profit for the seller. Zakaim told ARTnews­letter that he felt the market was “surprisingly buoyant. Although there are less sales, and we did not see much we liked, the buyers are still there.”

One of the strongest market segments of the week was important late works by Pablo Picasso—a sector which overlaps with the market for contemporary art, and has been accelerating fast. Two examples were among Christie’s top lots: Nu assis et jouer de flûte, 1967, sold to an anonymous Asian buyer for £3.4million ($5.5million), within the estimate of £3million/4million, and a musketeer painting, Homme à l’épée, 1969, sold to the Nahmad family for £5.75million ($9.4million) on an estimate of £5million/7million. The latter price doubled the £2.7million ($5million) the work took at Christie’s in London in February 2005, reportedly from Tarek Juffali, a member of the Juffali family of Saudi Arabian business giants. After the death of the owner, the family consigned it. Prices for Picasso’s musketeer paintings peaked last May, when Mousquetaire à la pipe, 1968, sold for $14.6million at Christie’s in New York (ANL, 5/26/09), spurred in part by interest created by “Picasso: Mosqueteros,” an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, New York. Prices for the works on sale in that show were reportedly as high as $20million.

A geographical breakdown showed an increase in European (including U.K. and Russian) buying in this sale. By lot, 83 percent of the buyers were from Europe and the U.K. (versus 62 percent last summer), 14 percent from the Americas (versus 34 percent last year) and 3 percent from Asia (unchanged from last year). “The sale was very European in taste,” said Seydoux, adding that the recovery of the pound made London less attractive for overseas buyers than it had been in February.

Christie’s part-two day sale had a stronger sell-through rate in the under-£300,000 estimate range, selling 145, or 76 percent, of the 191 lots for a total of £12.8million ($21.1million), within the £10.4million/15.1million estimate. The big surprise was Amazones, 1926, an Art Deco painting by Eugène Robert Pougheon (1886–1955). Bought for $90,500 in a decorative-arts sale at Christie’s in New York in 1998, it took a staggering £1.1million ($1.8million) on a £150,000/250,000 estimate. “This had definite ‘wow’ appeal for Art Deco collectors,” Seydoux said, drawing a parallel with the prices achieved for works by Tamara de Lempicka in New York last May (ANL, 5/26/09).

Other top lots in the sale were Henri Le Sidaner’s La table blanche, Gerberoy, 1920, which had sold in 1997 for £331,000 ($546,000) and was bought now by Green for £421,250 ($694,472) on an estimate of £300,000/500,000, and Kees van Dongen’s Recuerdo de Toledo, 1908, which had gone unsold in auctions in 2002 and 2004 on estimates of £450,000/650,000 and £200,000/300,000, respectively, and now sold to Zakaim for £289,250 ($476,857) on a £100,000/150,000 estimate.

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