ARTnewsletter Archive

Imp/Mod Sales: Strong Prices But No Fireworks

The Spring series of New York auctions got off to a solid start in the first week of May, with evening and day sales of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s that realized a combined total of $399 million, down from the $538.8 million total recorded last fall (ANL, 11/16/10) and the $593

NEW YORK—The Spring series of New York auctions got off to a solid start in the first week of May, with evening and day sales of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s that realized a combined total of $399 million, down from the $538.8 million total recorded last fall (ANL, 11/16/10) and the $593 million total posted last spring.

In contrast to the fireworks seen this past November—such as a rare Amedeo Modigliani painting that fetched $69 million and a $48.8 million bronze by Henri Matisse—the highest price at the recent sale series was $22.5 million for a Claude Monet landscape at Christie’s. And Sotheby’s top lot, Pablo Picasso’s Femmes lisant (Deux personages), 1934, sold for $21.4 million including premium, well below the $25 million low estimate. Interestingly, the highest price of the week for a single painting was not paid for an Impressionist work but for a 19th-century painting by Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema that sold for $29.2 million at Sotheby’s on May 5 (page 3).

Following the evening Impressionist sale, Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art in New York, characterized bidding as “solid” but “not euphoric.”

Indeed buyers often seemed to be in charge, judging from activity on some lots, such as back-to-back offerings of artwork by Alberto Giacometti. The first work, a 1956 bronze sculpture of a standing woman, Femme Debout, drew more than five bidders and quickly soared past its $2 million/3 million estimate to sell for $7.4 million. It was followed by a ca. 1964-5 Giacometti oil on canvas Portrait de Maurice Lefebvre-Foinet, that was estimated at $4 million/6 million but had been sold less than two years ago at Christie’s Paris, where it was acquired by the present consigner, for $3.4 million (€2.2 million). It did not attract a single bid.

Conor Jordan, Christie’s head of the department in New York and head of the evening sale, conceded that the often selective buying at Sotheby’s sale on the previous evening made consigners realistic about what to expect. Bidding on several lots at Christie’s sale on May 4 fell well short of low estimates but the lots sold anyway, indicating that consigners were either persuaded to lower expectations or voluntarily chose to lower reserves, the undisclosed minimum price at which they permit the house to sell their artwork. Of course, at the preceding sale “we take note of what happens,” said Jordan, noting how infrequently the evening sales take place.

Still, international art dealer David Nahmad pointed out that overall “the art market is really strong.” A frequent buyer at auction, Nahmad said he succeeded in buying only about three paintings he bid on throughout the week. Noting the quality and prices of works on offer, Nahmad points out that, “when there is no space for a dealer to buy, or it is really difficult to buy,” then the market is robust. Nahmad adds that some of the most important works are typically sold privately ahead of the auctions.

For auction houses, finding material to sell has been challenging, notes private dealer Nicholas Maclean of Eykyn Maclean. He concurs that many of the best works are being sold privately. “I think there is a small group of collectors who are prepared to pay significantly more than where an auction house might be prepared to estimate a work at. It’s why you tend to see a lot of third-party guarantees at the auctions, but they are below where a private offer will be.”

Sotheby’s evening sale took in $170.5 million for 59 lots on offer, meeting the presale estimate of $158.9 million/229.7 million but down from the $227.6 million recorded last fall for 61 lots on offer. Christie’s evening sale took $156 million for 57 lots on offer, missing the presale estimate of $162.5 million/232.3 million. The total was also a drop from the $231.4 million achieved last fall for a considerably larger offering of 80 lots.

Including the day sales, Sotheby’s total for Impressionist and modern was $209.5 million, compared with $264 million last fall. Christie’s overall Impressionist and modern total was $189 million, also well below the $231.4 million achieved last fall.

A full report on the Postwar and contemporary art sales, to be held at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company May 9-13, will be published in the next edition of the ARTnewsletter.

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