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Scaled-Down Sotheby’s Impressionist Sale Hits the Mark

As it did in February, Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department responded to the recession by mounting an evening sale on June 24 that was much more tightly edited than Christie’s, with just 27 lots, the fewest since 1997.

LONDON—As it did in February, Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department responded to the recession by mounting an evening sale on June 24 that was much more tightly edited than Christie’s, with just 27 lots, the fewest since 1997. But whereas last February’s evening sale fell below estimate, this June’s brought in £33.5million ($55.3million), satisfactorily meeting its estimate of £26.7million/37.3million. Only four lots, or 15 percent, went unsold, and most of the ­highest-estimated lots found buyers, producing a more upbeat effect than Christie’s sale the evening before.

Late Picasso Leads Auction

Here, as at Christie’s, late paintings by Pablo Picasso ruled the evening. A musketeer painting, Homme à l’épée, 1969, dated July 25, the day after the identically titled picture at Christie’s (see story, page 3), had not been at auction before, but had reportedly been acquired by Dallas collector John Tolleson from Landau Fine Art, Montreal, in 2000 for around $6million. Used as the poster for the groundbreaking late-Picasso exhibition at the Palais des Papes, Avignon, France, in 1970, the work had been given an irrevocable bid, and was sold to the London-based Lebanese financier Samir Traboulsi for £7million ($11.5million), within the £6million/8million estimate. Traboulsi opened the bidding, and after a single bid from a client on the ­telephone with Helena Newman, Sotheby’s vice chairman of Impres­sionist and modern art, bid once more to secure the painting. Melanie Clore, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art, declined to comment to ARTnewsletter on whether Traboulsi was the irrevocable bidder.

A second late Picasso, Nu debout, 1968, a 61⁄2-foot-high portrait of his wife Jacqueline, also performed well, attracting at least four bidders and selling for £4.3million ($7.1million), just above the £3million/4million estimate, to a phone buyer bidding against the Nahmad family of art dealers.

The market for works by Alberto Giacometti looked secure as three sculptures—two lifetime casts and a plaster head from a private European collection—sold for £7.4million ($12.2million) against a combined low estimate of £4.2million. Only one, the bronze Buste d’Annette VII, 1963, sold at a hammer price below estimate, to art adviser Kim Heirston. The buyer’s premium brought the price to £1.3million ($2.1million), just within the £1.2million/1.8million estimate.

Impressionist works were again scarce. The provenance of the snowy Claude Monet landscape Route de Giverny en hiver, 1885, reflects the fluctuations in the market: The oil had been bought by the Nahmad family in 1989, at the height of the Impressionist boom, for £1.98million; in 1998 it was offered for sale but was passed on a £1.8million/2.5million estimate; now it sold to an Asian collector for £3.8million ($6.3million) on a £3million/4million estimate. Another work, a mediocre 1889 Auguste Renoir still life, which had been bought at Phillips in New York for $1.4million in November 2000, sold for £2.8million ($4.7million) on a £1.8million/2.5million estimate.

Of the Surrealist pieces in the sale, works on paper by René Magritte fared best, with two examples selling above estimates. La Lumière des coïncidences, 1935, sold for £646,050 ($1.1million), above the £200,000/300,000 estimate and among the top five prices for a Magritte work on paper. The gouache and watercolor, once owned by Belgian artist E.L.T. Mesens (1903–71) and selected for the first International Surrealist Exhi­bition in London in 1936, had sold in July 1998 at Sotheby’s in London for £150,000 ($249,000).

In fact there were no examples at the evening sales of works selling for less than they had cost—most made more. Notable examples include August Macke’s Still Life: Colorful Bunch of Flowers in Front of a Window, 1913, last sold in February 2004 at Sotheby’s in London for £95,200 ($173,000), which sold now for £385,250 ($635,662), underbid by art adviser Edmund Peel. Even Fernand Léger’s Still Life with Lemon, 1938, which had been bought at Sotheby’s in June of last year for £457,250 ($900,000) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, made its money back now, selling again for £457,250 ($754,462), with an only slightly lower estimate of £380,000/450,000.

British art was represented by an early Ben Nicholson abstract painting, Composition, 1931–36, which sold to London dealer Alon Zakaim for £325,250 ($536,662), beating its estimate of £200,000/300,000, and Three Standing Forms, 1965, a Barbara Hepworth stone carving, which sold to Pyms Gallery, London, for £780,450 ($1.3million) on an estimate of £700,000/1million. Although the hammer price of £660,000 was below the estimate, it was the second-highest price on record for a unique Hepworth carving. As auctioneer Henry Wyndham said after the sale, “I don’t think any of the works tonight made less than they would have done a year ago.” The strong prices and low buy-in rate sent out, as Clore said, “a very positive message to the market.”

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