Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern auction kicked off the fall auction season last night with a $422 million opener that represented the house’s highest-ever total for a single auction.
Only in today’s overheated art market could a $422 million auction be called sleepy, yet the evening felt like a by-the-books affair, with just one artist record set, for Amedeo Modigliani, and the final sum actually falling squarely between presale estimates of $315 million to $423 million (which are calculated without buyer’s premiums, around 15 percent on average for the night). Of the 73 lots on offer, 15 failed to sell, for an average sell-through rate of 79 percent.
Even the night’s top lot, Alberto Giacometti’s Chariot (1951–52), sold after just one, $90 million bid from Sotheby’s Co-Chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art David Norman, representing a phone bidder who jumped in at the end. No $90 million lot can be called a failure, but that figure is said to be around the lot’s guarantee and specialists had expected it to hammer for more than $100 million. Its final price, with premium, was just over that at $100.97 million, still not far from the artist’s $104.3 million record for L’homme qui marche I, acheived at Sotheby’s London in 2010. Still, the lot moved slowly as the evening’s auctioneer, Henry Windham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, started the bidding at $80 million then threw out $2 million increments to a silent room over the course of three minutes, until Norman stepped in.
“This is dullest auction I’ve ever experienced, online or in person,” tweeted art journalist Lee Rosenbaum in the middle of the sale. “Wake me when it’s over.”
Things were relatively livelier earlier in the night, during the bidding for the night’s second-highest lot, the record-setting Modigliani sculpture Tête (1911–12) that eventually sold for $70.73 million (the artist’s previous record, according to Artnet, was set at $68.96 million in 2010 with a painting, the medium with which he is usually associated). That lot, too, saw few bidders, however, and was mostly a phone contest between Alexander Rotter, Sotheby’s co-head of contemporary art worldwide, and Sotheby’s Chairman of North and South America Lisa Dennison, bidding half-million-dollar increments for most of the lot’s 7 minutes until specialist Simon Stock jumped in and won the sculpture for his bidder.
That lot, number 8 for the night, seemed to have had some Chinese interest not only due to its order in the sale (the number 8 being lucky in Chinese culture and Christie’s reportedly having had some success with number 8—its Francis Bacon that set the record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction having been tagged in 2013, for some reason, 8a rather than 9). After the lot hammered, Rotter leaned down from his phone booth to shake the hand of a colleague, asking him, “How was my Cantonese?”
Chinese interest too seemed to be a factor in the sale of the evening’s third-highest lot for the evening, Vincent van Gogh’s Still Life, Vase with Daisies and Poppies (1890), which sold to a private Chinese collector represented on the phone by Jen Hua from Sotheby’s Beijing. (The underbidder for that lot, a woman in the room, declined to comment at the Sotheby’s elevators after she left the auction room. “Must have been my twin sister,” she said coyly, “who was just here and left.”)
Aside from these three lots, however, the night offered little to write home about, all things being relative, just three more lots selling for final prices in the double-digit millions. Two dealers declined to comment on the sale, though Emmanuel Di Donna pointed out that “five to ten years ago,” Pablo Picasso’s Home assis (1969) clearly wouldn’t have sold for $11.37 million as it did tonight.
“Picasso did well, the Impressionsists did well,” he said. “There’s a good market in the under-$10 million range. Above that the air is a bit more rarefied.”
And collectors seemed to have gotten what they wanted. New Jersey collector Jim Grecco nabbed Fernand Léger’s Clowns et cheveaux (1953) for $5.87 million. “I thought it was a good piece,” he said after the sale. “I liked the atmosphere, I liked the color, the subject matter, the clowns.”
“It’s a good year,” he added.
At the press conference after the sale, Sotheby’s Co-Head of Impressionist & Modern Art Worldwide Simon Shaw emphasized the grand total, and the top two works, the Giacometti and the Modigliani.
“Since Samuel Sotheby held his first auction in London in 1744, I’m delighted to say we reached an extraordinary result this evening, one we’ve never seen before,” he began. Plus, he said, the top two lots shows that the market has “reappraised sculpture.”
The Impressionist and modern sales continue tomorrow night at Christie’s.
All photos courtesy Sotheby’s.