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Fall Imp/Mod Auctions: The Difference a Day Makes

Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening sales paint very different pictures of the health of the market

Gustav Klimt’s restituted landscape, Litzlberg am Attersee, ca. 1914-15, was Sotheby’s top lot. It sold for $40.4 million to a private collection


NEW YORK—Christie’s and Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sales painted very different pictures of the health of the market. With Christie’s opening sale on Nov. 1 sparking talk of a sharp correction, or pullback, as top lots failed to sell and the total fell well below expectations, Sotheby’s sale the following night provided immediate reassurance that demand for top quality works was robust, especially where prices were reasonable.

“I think the market for Impressionist paintings is extremely firm,” said London dealer Jonathan Green. “The market for recycled goods at overestimated prices is sticky. Christie’s took some high-value works that were very well known to the market and put some very bullish estimates on them,” he said. Green further noted that those estimates were likely established last summer, “at a different moment in the market before the stock market took a hit.”

Private dealer Nicholas Maclean told ARTnewsletter, “the surprise of the week was the difference in success, or lack thereof, in the two sales.” Maclean said Sotheby’s sale was “much more tightly edited. I think the market is still very much there.”

Selectivity has marked collecting since the major downturn in the art market in late 2008. This time the trend was even more pronounced, with some major lots failing to elicit a single bid. On the other hand, competition for relatively lower-priced works was frequently intense.

Sotheby’s was the leader, taking in a total of $229.7 million in evening and day sales—down from $263.6 million achieved last November, but a healthy result nonetheless. Christie’s total, including two day sales, one with a special focus on Impressionist and modern works on paper, realized $170.5 million, $100 million less than the $271 million total seen last year.

The combined Impressionist art total for the two houses was $400.2 million, compared with $538.8 million in fall 2010.

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.

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.

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.

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