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‘Looking Closely’ Sale Commands Collector Attention

Sotheby’s rounded off the week on Feb 10 with an exceptional sale of 60 works from a private collection, confirmed by trade sources as belonging to the estate of George Kostalitz, a Swiss businessman who died last year.

LONDON—Sotheby’s rounded off the week on Feb 10 with an exceptional sale of 60 works from a private collection, confirmed by trade sources as belonging to the estate of George Kostalitz, a Swiss businessman who died last year. Estimated to fetch £39 million/54 million, it raced past the high estimate to sell for a cumulative £93.5 million ($150.5 million), which Sotheby’s claimed as a record for a single-owner sale in London.

The sale fell into two sections. The first 23 lots, classified as Impressionist and modern art, fetched £49.9 million ($80.2 million), compared with an estimate of £23.4 million/33.3 million. The star of this section was Salvador Dalí’s small but iconic Portrait of Paul Éluard, 1929, which Kostalitz had acquired at Christie’s New York in November 1989 for $2.3 million, then a record.

Ten bidders fought for the painting before it fell to Sotheby’s head of private sales, Stephane Connery, who is based in New York, for £13.5 million ($21.7 million), against an estimate of £3.5 million/5 million. Among the underbidders was Switzerland-based private collector Dimitri Mavromatis. The price was a record for any Surrealist work of art.

Also remarkable was a group of diminutive, early bronze and iron sculptures by Julio González, dating from the late 1920s, when the artist was teaching welding techniques to Pablo Picasso. The artist’s previous auction record was beaten twice. A unique iron sculpture, Masque My, ca. 1927–29, sold to Sotheby’s Paris head of contemporary art, Gregoire Billault, bidding for a European collector, for £2.7 million ($4.4 million) on an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million, and then the slightly larger Masque ‘ombre et lumière,’ ca. 1930, sold to a Sotheby’s staffer from New York for £4.6 million ($7.5 million), against an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million.

Kostalitz had two small works by Alberto Giacometti. An 11-inch bronze, Figurine sur grand socle, 1950, sold to London dealer Alan Hobart for £1.4 million ($2.3 million), against an estimate of £400,000/600,000, followed by a painting, Portrait d’Annette au pull-over rouge, 1961, which sold, again to Hobart, for £4.9 million ($7.8 million) against an estimate of £2 million/3 million.

Other buyers in this section included William Acquavella, who bought Alexander Calder’s 17½-inch wire sculpture L’Acrobate, ca. 1928, for £1.4 million ($2.3 million), on an estimate of £1 million/1.5 million; David Nahmad, who bought Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morte, 1946, for £825,250 ($1.3 million), compared with an estimate of £500,000/700,000, as well as Calder’s mobile Deux Ailes Bleues, 1966, for £1.2 million ($1.9 million), on an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million; and Madame Jan Krugier, widow of the late dealer, who bought Joan Miró’s early watercolor Sans titre, 1924, for £1.6 million ($2.6 million), against an estimate of £500,000/700,000.

The second section of the sale focused primarily on the contemporary European art Kostalitz bought in depth during the 1960s from dealers in Paris and London, and realized £43.7 million ($70.4 million) for the 37 lots. The collector’s wife, who was from Berlin, had been interned by the Nazis, and the couple had an early interest in cutting-edge art informel, and tachisme, much of which reflected the existential angst experienced by artists during the Nazi occupation of France.

Among these were two absolute classics that fetched record prices. Jean Fautrier’s Corps d’Otage, ca. 1943, was one of the largest from his Otage (hostage) series, derived from his experience of Nazi brutality in a sanatorium in France. Estimated at £700,000/900,000, it beat a 20-year record for the artist, selling to a phone bidder for £2.5 million ($4 million). Similarly, one of fewer than 50 known oil paintings by German-born, Paris-based artist Wols, Sans titre, 1946–47, pulverized a £100,000/150,000 estimate to sell for £2.6 million ($4.2 million) to the same New York–based Sotheby’s phone bidder as the record-breaking González sculpture. Among the underbidders was Wols expert Dr. Ewald Rathke, who had confirmed the authenticity of the work for Sotheby’s, but dropped out of the bidding at £1.2 million.

The top lots of this section, however, were works of British artists. Francis Bacon’s small- scale triptych Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1964, had been acquired from Marlborough Fine Art in 1964, and only exhibited once since then, in 1965. Some 18 months ago, according to trade sources, it was offered privately by Sotheby’s, and also by Christie’s private dealing arm, Haunch of Venison, and by the Gagosian Gallery, for a price said to be $25 million, but no one bought it. Estimated at £7 million/9 million it benefited from the new optimism in the market, selling to Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann for £23 million ($37 million), against collector Dimitri Mavromatis. Sources in the Russian market believe Lachmann was bidding for Pyotr Aven, the president of Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest bank, whom Lachmann has advised on a collection of Russian art and who has recently moved into collecting Western contemporary art.

Two paintings by Lucian Freud had been among Kostalitz’s last purchases. At Sotheby’s, London, in April 1990 he bought the small Seated Figure, 1980–82, for £357,000 ($586,000). Now estimated at £1 million/1.5 million, it sold to William Acquavella for £1.4 million ($2.2 million). In March 1992, he bought a tiny Freud Self Portrait, 1952, for £88,000 ($152,100) at Sotheby’s London. Now estimated at £600,000/800,000, it sold to a U.S. collector for £3.3 million ($5.3 million).

The sale not only gave Sotheby’s a comfortable lead over Christie’s in the Impressionist and modern series, by £140 million to £106 million, but also a head start in the Postwar and contemporary auctions the following week.

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