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Bigger Is Better at Christie’s $136 Million Imp/Mod Auction

Christie’s evening sale on Feb. 9 was much bigger than Sotheby’s, consisting of 76 lots, 31 of which were in a now traditional “Art of the Surreal” sale, which boasted a separate catalogue.

LONDON—Christie’s evening sale on Feb. 9 was much bigger than Sotheby’s, consisting of 76 lots, 31 of which were in a now traditional “Art of the Surreal” sale, which boasted a separate catalogue. The total for the evening was £84.9 million ($136.3 million), falling within the estimate of £72.6 million/107.1 million. Of the total, £23 million ($36.9 million) was contributed by the Surrealist section (estimate: £18.8 million/27.5 million). In all, 16 lots or 11 percent, were unsold, six of which were in the Surrealist section.

Impressionist-era pictures were something of a disappointment in terms of quality and commercial appeal. Paul Gauguin’s sombre Nature morte à ‘L’Esperance,’ 1901, featuring a crop of wilting sunflowers in homage to Vincent van Gogh, who had died ten years earlier, failed to merit its £7 million/10 million estimate and was unsold. Three mediocre Camille Pissarros were also unsold.

As at Sotheby’s, an early Impressionist Claude Monet, La berge du Petit-Gennevilliers, 1875, barely reaped a return on the £3.2 million ($5 million) invested at Sotheby’s, London, in November 1989, selling for £3.7 million ($6 million) to a U.S. collector (estimate: £3 million/5 million).

The pick of the Impressionist bunch was an Edgar Degas pastel, Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune), ca. 1896, which had been on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, for 30 years but was never exhibited, at the request of its owners (heirs of Paul Cassirer, the German dealer), who had lent the museum several works, not all of which were shown. The museum had offered to buy this Degas on the low estimate before the sale, but in the event it made much more, selling for £5.4 million ($8.7 million), compared with an estimate of £3 million/5 million to a private European collector bidding against New York dealer William Acquavella.

Otherwise, most of the top lots were sold to phone bids from Christie’s staff thought to be representing Russian or CIS buyers. Waving paddle no 841, Sandra Nedvestkaia, a Russian-speaking Christie’s staffer based in Zurich, bought the top lot, a large, late-period, color-drenched Pierre Bonnard, Terrasse à Vernon, 1923, for a record £7.2 million ($11.6 million), compared with an estimate of £3 million/4 million. The bidding was extremely drawn out because Nedvestkaia had to translate each bid into dollars, “and then into another currency,” said auctioneer Jussi Pylkannen, who tried in vain to speed the process up. Using the same paddle number, Nedvestkaia also bought Kees van Dongen’s portrait L’Actrice Lili Damita, ca. 1926, for £3.1 million ($4.9 million) on an estimate of £1.5 million/2 million.

Competing with Nedvestkaia on the Bonnard was Christie’s international head of the Impressionist and modern department, Thomas Seydoux, who, using paddle number 827, bought Natalia Goncharova’s Les arbres en fleurs, 1912, for £4 million ($6.4 million) on an estimate of £2.5 million/3.5 million; Pablo Picasso’s early Sur l’impériale traversant la Seine, 1901, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, for £4.9 million ($7.8 million), on an estimate of £2 million/3 million; and André Derain’s brilliantly colored Fauvist Bateaux à Collioure, 1905, for which he had to outbid London dealer Alan Hobart, as it sailed to £5.9 million ($9.4 million), on an estimate of £4 million/6 million. Christie’s identified Seydoux’s client as a “private European collector,” and informed sources have narrowed that down to a buyer from Ukraine.

Buyers in the room in this section of the sale included Hobart, who secured Henry Moore’s large bronze Goslar Warrior, 1973, for £1.8 million ($2.9 million) on an estimate of £1.5 million/2.5 million against dealer Ivor Braka; Richard Nagy, who bought Egon Schiele’s classic drawing Reclining Nude, 1914, for £442,250 ($710,253) against an estimate of £150,000/200,000; and David Nahmad, who snapped up Henri Matisse’s Femme au fauteuil, 1919, from the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, below estimate for £791,650 ($1.3 million) compared with an estimate of £1 million/1.5 million as well as underbidding Picasso’s small Tête d’homme, 1965, which sold to London dealer Richard Green for £881,250 ($1.4 million), on an estimate of £500,000/700,000.

Other members of the Nahmad family were also in on the action, though as underbidders. Ezra Nahmad pursued Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morta, 1953, until it was knocked down to a collector from Beijing for £1.4 million ($2.2 million) on an estimate of £700,000/1 million, matching the pounds sterling record set at Sotheby’s the night before; and New York’s Helly Nahmad was one of a host of unsuccessful bidders, including Berlin dealer Michael Haas, for Fernand Léger’s Nature morte au buste, 1924, once in the collection of the legendary art historian and Picasso confidant Douglas Cooper, which sold for £769,250 ($1.2 million) against an estimate of £380,000/480,000.

Also of note was the interest shown by Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann in Oskar Kokoschka’s early portrait of the Austrian statesman Hermann Schwarzwald II, 1916, which he underbid as it sold over the telephone for £1.8 million ($2.9 million), on an estimate of £1.2 million/1.6 million.

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