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Collectors Shun High Prices At Christie’s Season Opener

Despite realizing $140.8 million in its evening sale on Nov. 1, Christie’s major Impressionist and modern art offering was widely viewed as a disappointment, especially since it marked the start of the fall season, as one high-priced lot after another—many by blue chip artists whose works are typically highly sought after—failed to sell.

NEW YORK—Despite realizing $140.8 million in its evening sale on Nov. 1, Christie’s major Impressionist and modern art offering was widely viewed as a disappointment, especially since it marked the start of the fall season, as one high-priced lot after another—many by blue chip artists whose works are typically highly sought after—failed to sell. The house had placed an overall presale estimate of $210 million/300 million on the auction.

Some observers blamed unrealistic estimates—a consideration Christie’s specialists suggested was indeed a factor at a postsale press conference with respect to managing consignor’s expectations. Others said there was simply too much material on offer. Of the 82 lots featured in the sale, 51, or 62 percent, found buyers. By value the sale realized 55 percent. Last November, when the house offered more than 80 lots, the total was a far higher $231.4 million (ANL, 11/16/10).

Though Christie’s officials pointed out that the total was just below last spring’s $156 million sale, that auction featured 57 lots compared with 82 lots at the recent sale.

The major casualty of the evening was a sculpture by Edgar Degas, Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, a bronze with a muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on a wooden base, executed in wax ca. 1879–81 and cast in bronze at a later date. It was heavily marketed by Christie’s and given an estimate of $25 million/35 million, a price many observers said was too high. When it was last sold at Sotheby’s London, in June 2000, the sculpture was acquired by a private European collector for £7.7 million ($11.6 million) on an estimate of £7 million/9 million.

Christie’s honorary chairman and auctioneer, Christopher Burge, opened bidding at $14 million, but announced that the lot was “passed,” or bought in, shortly after with no bids in evidence from either the room or the phone banks.

And, while works by Pablo Picasso (from early to late pieces spanning his entire career) are usually guaranteed sellers, five of the ten Picassos offered did not sell.

Similarly, there were four works by Alberto Giacometti offered in the sale—a fifth was withdrawn prior to the sale—and only one found a buyer. This was a bronze bust of the artist’s brother titled Buste de Diego, conceived in 1959 and cast in 1960–61, which sold for $5 million, compared with an estimate of $3.5 million/4.5 million, to a private European collector bidding via phone. Last offered at auction in 2007 at Christie’s New York, the work sold for $3.96 million, just under the $4 million/6 million estimate.

Meanwhile, a signature Giacometti sculpture, Femme de Venise VII, conceived in 1956 and cast in 1957, failed to excite any bidding on an estimate of $10 million/15 million and was also bought in.

Following the sale, Christie’s head of Impressionist sales, Conor Jordan, said that the activity “showed a marketplace at its most selective. We struggled with market resistance for works more known in the marketplace.” In contrast, there was frequently more active bidding throughout the evening for “fresh material coming from estates,” such as property offered from the collection of Lew and Edie Wasserman.

Christie’s Paris-based, international head of the department, Thomas Seydoux, confirmed that buyers “were more sensitive and selective than we thought.” On lots with little or no interest, “starting the bidding was difficult.” On the other hand, for several lots on which there were multiple bidders, buyers “never let go.”

On the upside, the sale set a record for a single print when Picasso’s La femme qui pleure, I, a drypoint, aquatint, etching and scraper, 1937, sold for $5.1 million, far surpassing its $1.5 million/2.5 million estimate.

A record was set for Surrealist painter Max Ernst when The Stolen Mirror, 1941, soared past its $4 million/6 million estimate, selling to a private European collector for $16.3 million.

Other top lots included Constantin Brancusi’s polished bronze piece, Le premier cri, conceived in 1917, which came down to a tug of war between dealer Larry Gagosian, seated in the room, and Christie’s specialist Sandra Nedvetskaia, who is known to bid for Russian collectors.

Bidding opened at $5.5 million and quickly ran up to a $13 million hammer with Gagosian’s final bid. After a few moments, Nedvetskaia, on the phone with her client, asked Burge if she could raise the bid by $200,000. (At that price level, the standard bid is $250,000). Burge accepted the bid and then offered Gagosian the chance to also make a $200,000 increment but the dealer steadfastly shook his head no and the work sold to Nedvetskaia’s client for a $13.2 million hammer price. The final price with premium was $14.9 million.

Work by Rene Magritte was in demand. His Les vances de Hegel, 1958, a painting of a glass of water balanced on an open gray umbrella, surrounded by a pink background, sold for $10.2 million on an estimate of $9 million/12 million. And La fin du monde, a silhouette painting depicting a dark house with illuminated windows and a figure in a bowler hat standing off to one side, sold for $7 million compared with an estimate of $4 million/6 million.

Over the course of the evening, two lots sold for over $10 million each, nine lots sold for over $5 million each and 32 works fetched more than $1 million apiece.

Along with the record price for the Picasso print, Femme assise, 1938, which sold to a bidder in the room, also took a final price of $5.1 million, more in line with its $4 million/6 million estimate.

The same bidder also bought Amedeo Modigliani’s La blonde aux boucles d’orielle, ca. 1918–19, for $8 million, doubling the $3 million/4 million estimate, and Tamara de Lempicka’s painting titled Idylle (Le Départ), 1931, for $4.8 million, compared with a $3 million/4 million estimate.

Among other buyers in the room, dealer Jonathan Green acquired Alfred Sisley’s Paysage, 1887, offered from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, for $3.3 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million), and a Henry Moore bronze, Family Group, conceived in 1944 and cast during the artist’s lifetime, for $482,500, compared with an estimate of $300,000/500,000. Dealer Marc Blondeau acquired Auguste Rodin’s bronze, L’un des Bourgeois de Calais: Jacques de Wiessant, vêtu, Grand Modèle, conceived in 1888 and cast in 1989, for $962,500 (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million).

Impressionist and modern art dealer Ray Waterhouse told ARTnewsletter that the results had more to do with the specifics of the sale than the broader market. “I do not think the poor results and buy-ins of the Christie’s sale are reflective of a bad art market. The good things did well, sometimes very well.” Added Waterhouse: “So the market is fine, but is obviously selective in these times, which is a good thing.”

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