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Sotheby’s Sale Gives Market a Shot of Confidence

Sotheby’s officials appeared elated following the house’s Nov. 3 evening sale of Impressionist and modern art, as all of the top lots met or exceeded expectations and reasonable estimates encouraged healthy bidding throughout the sale.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s officials appeared elated following the house’s Nov. 3 evening sale of Impressionist and modern art, as all of the top lots met or exceeded expectations and reasonable estimates encouraged healthy bidding throughout the sale.

The auction offered 70 lots and 57, or 81 percent, were sold for a total of $199.8 million, compared with a presale estimate of $167.6 million/229 million. By value the sale realized 87 percent.

At a post-sale press conference, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the Impressionist department in New York, Simon Shaw, said “the art market is alive and kicking,” noting the need for auction specialists to show “as much discipline as we can against significant volatility,” in terms of asking prices. Shaw called the sale result “very healthy,” noting that it surpassed the house’s May evening sale total of $170.5 million.

David Norman, worldwide co-chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist department, concurred, saying the house had put estimates “we believed in” on the works and actually lost a fair number of consignments for its refusal to raise prices.

The star of the evening was a restituted landscape by Gustav Klimt, Litzlberg am Atersee, ca. 1914–15, that was the focus of intense competition from multiple buyers. Bidding opened near $17 million and rose gradually through the $20 millions. Sotheby’s Hong Kong representative Patti Wong bid for a client at $22 million and could be heard speaking Chinese on the phone.

Ultimately, the contest was narrowed down to a gentleman seated in the front of the room on a cellphone and a different phone bidder competing through a Sotheby’s representative as the price rose upwards from $30 million. It was hammered down to the bidder in the room, who identified himself as Zurich dealer David Lachenmann, for $36 million. Lachenmann told reporters he was bidding for a private collection. The final price with premium was $40.4 million.

Litzlberg am Atersee had once been part of the collection of Austro-Hungarian iron magnate Viktor Zuckerkandl and his wife Paula. According to Sotheby’s catalogue, the Zuckerkandls died childless in 1927. Part of the collection was sold and the remainder passed on to their extended family. This work was passed to Viktor’s sister, Amalie Redlich, who, with her daughter Mathilde, was deported to Lodz, Poland in 1941 and then disappeared. Since 1944, the work had been in the collection of the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, but the institution ultimately returned it to Redlich’s heirs earlier this year.

Bidding was also intense for the second-highest lot of the sale, a later Pablo Picasso painting entitled L’Aubade, 1967. Underbid by the Nahmad family of art dealers up to $20.2 million, the piece ultimately sold to a phone bidder who won it for a hammer price of $20.5 million, or $23 million with premium, compared with a presale estimate of $18 million/25 million.

Sotheby’s noted that the work had proved a great investment for the consignor, who acquired it at Sotheby’s London in April 1979 for a price equivalent to just under $100,000.

Another lot that sparked intense competition was Gustave Caillebotte’s Le pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine, ca. 1883, which was estimated at $9 million/12 million and ultimately sold for a record $18 million with premium.

Though the same work had been sold just three years ago, at Christie’s New York in 2008, for $8.5 millon (estimate: $8 million/12 million), experts deemed the work “fantastic” and buyers clearly thought the markup was fair.

Even before the sale started, Sotheby’s announced that one of its highest-estimated lots, Henri Matisse’s prized bronze sculpture of a woman’s back, Nu de dos (1er état), conceived in 1908-9, cast 1959, which was estimated at $20 million/30 million, had instead been brokered as a private sale, with the entire group of four sculptures, from the Texas-based Burnett Foundation to an anonymous buyer for an undisclosed price.

Last November, the highlight of Christie’s Impressionist evening sale was Matisse’s seminal bronze relief Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV), conceived ca. 1930 and cast in 1978, which sold for $48.8 million against a $25 million/35 million estimate. It was bought by dealer Larry Gagosian, who was seated in the room (ANL, 11/16/10).

Claude Monet’s Antibes Le Fort, 1888, offered from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was also sought after with London dealer Jonathan Green underbidding up to $4.5 million. The work eventually sold to an unidentified gentleman at the back of the room for $9.3 million (estimate: $5 million/7 million).

The same buyer proved a major force at this sale, snapping up four other works including: another MFA Boston offering, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Portrait en buste de jeune fille, ca 1893, for $1.9 million (estimate: $1.8 million/2.5 million); Edvard Munch’s Morning on the Promenade des Anglais, 1891, for just under $2 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million); Max Ernst’s Les princes Dorment Mal, 1957, for $2.4 million; and Wassily Kandinsky’s Weisser Klang, 1908, for $8.9 million (estimate: $7 million/10 million). In all, the buyer spent $24.5 million.

Among other buyers, dealers Eykyn Maclean, bidding for a client, won Matisse’s Vénus a la Coquille I, conceived in 1930 and cast in 1951, for $1.4 million (estimate: $700,000/1 million).

Buyers clearly had a taste for Surrealist paintings with no less than nine works by Ernst on offer, most of which were from a private collection grouped under the heading “Abstraction-Figuration.” All but one found buyers.

The top price for Ernst was $3.4 million given for Convolvulus! Convolvulus!, 1941, which was estimated at $1.5 million/2 million. Several of the Ernsts had appeared at auction over the last decade, giving observers an idea of how prices have appreciated. For instance, Convolvulus! had been offered at Christie’s London in February 2003 where it took £732,650 ($1.2 million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000.

And Descente dans la vallée, 1949, sold for $602,500, roughly double the $284,800 achieved when it previously appeared at auction at Sotheby’s New York in 2005.

Salvador Dalí’s Le Voyage Fantastique, 1965, was also in demand. Bidding opened at $900,000 and the work drew bids from the Mugrabi family competing against a buyer on the phone. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer, attempting to coax another bid from the Mugrabis, leaned on the podium and asked: “You are going on a fantastic voyage?” When Gagosian jumped into the bidding for a brief one-bid increment near $1.5 million, Meyer asked, “You want to travel too?” prompting laughter from the packed saleroom.

The work was bought by the Mugrabis for $1.65 million on a hammer basis. With premium, the final price was $1.93 million.

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