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Robust Demand for Masterpieces Fuels Sotheby’s Record London Sale

With the aid of the £104 million ($166 million) fetched by three works by Alberto Giacometti, Gustav Klimt and Paul Cézanne that had each been estimated at £10 million or more (ANL, 2/9/10), Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Feb. 3 took in £146.8 million ($235.6 million), the highest total for any

LONDON—With the aid of the £104million ($166million) fetched by three works by Alberto Giacometti, Gustav Klimt and Paul Cézanne that had each been estimated at £10million or more (ANL, 2/9/10), Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Feb. 3 took in £146.8million ($235.6million), the highest total for any sale ever held in London.

With just 39 lots on offer, of which 31, or 80 percent, sold, the sale provided only a snapshot of the market, focusing exclusively on the top end. And although the total was high, comparisons with previous sales on the basis of individual lots showed only very modest gains. Camille Pissarro’s L’Eglise Saint-Jacques à Dieppe, matin, soleil, 1901, sold to a European collector for £2.5million ($4million) on a £2million/3million estimate, could not have produced much of a return for the seller—who paid $3.2million for the oil at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2002—after premiums and commission were deducted.

Estimates were often cautious and based on previous prices. The high-estimated Cézanne, Pichet et fruits sur une table, 1893–94, for instance, which sold for £11.8million ($18.9million), was estimated at $16million/24million, not much higher than it had been in at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2001, when it was bought in on a $14million/20million estimate.

Blue-Chip Works Spark Intense Competition

The conservative estimates notwithstanding, there was no denying bidders’ willingness to spend. The estimate of £3million/5million for Egon Schiele’s Seated Woman with Violet Stockings, 1917, had seemed quite high to many observers, but seasoned dealer Richard Nagy fought off stiff competition to buy it for £4.9million ($7.8million). A private U.S. collector outbid the Nahmad family for Henri Matisse’s Femme couchée, ca. 1917, acquiring it for £4.4million ($7.1million) on a £3.5million/5.5million estimate. The oil had last been seen at auction at Christie’s in New York in November 2001, where it was bought by London dealers Malletts on behalf of a U.S. client for $5.3million. Fernand Léger’s transitional painting Les fumées sur les toits, 1912, fell just below the top ten lots, selling to Bona Montagu of Dickinson/Roundell for £2.3million ($3.6million) on a £2million/3million estimate.

With a major retrospective of his work coming up at Tate Britain (Feb. 24–August 8), the market for Henry Moore was in the spotlight. Figure on Steps, 1956, a 25-inch-high working model of the draped figure commissioned for the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) headquarters in Paris, drew competitive bidding from London and Switzerland dealer Desmond Corcoran before a U.S. phone buyer won it for £1million ($1.6million) against a £500,000/700,000 estimate. Reclining Figure, 1982, a monumental bronze by the artist, was hotly pursued by London dealer Ivor Braka, but sold to an anonymous private collector for £3.6million ($5.8million) on a £2.5million/3.5million estimate. And in Christie’s day sale of works on paper, a drawing by Moore, Three Figures Sleeping, or Shelterers Sleeping in the Tube, 1941, fetched a record £529,250 ($849,446) against a £150,000/250,000 estimate.

The most expensive Surrealist work at Sotheby’s was René Magritte’s nude Le Beau navire, 1942. London adviser Hector Paterson outbid London dealer Angela Neville to secure the oil on behalf of a European collector for £3.7million ($6million) against an estimate of £2.5million/3.5million. Neville was also in the chase for Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Variétéparade, 1910–26, an oil depicting a group of pink-colored dancers, which sold to Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann for £2.9million ($4.7million) on an estimate of £1million/1.5million. Lachmann is believed to buy on behalf of Russian clients.

Other German Expressionist works believed to have gone to Russian buyers include Lyonel Feininger’s Locomotive, 1908—last sold at Sotheby’s in New York in November 2006 for $2.1million—which brought £1.5million ($2.3million), and Heinrich Campendonk’s The Cowherd, 1924, which fetched £421,250 ($657,150) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000.

The most conspicuous buy-in of the sale was, ironically, another work by Giacometti: Petit buste sur colonne, ca. 1952, a painted plaster sculpture carrying a £1.8million/2.5million ($2.9million/4million) estimate was, unlike the £65million ($104.3million) Walking Man I, unique.

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