The New York evening sales concluded tonight with the Impressionist and modern sale at Christie’s, which racked up $145.5 million, well above its low estimate of $108.8 million—a quite successful tally accrued during a slow, steady waltz through a list of 59 relatively low-priced lots. The almost complete lack of any sky-high estimates—only two lots had valuations that passed into eight figures—allowed attendees to raise their paddles early and often, and a solid 83 percent of the cautiously priced works found buyers.
There were no blockbusters, but the modest highlights provided a solid end to a rocky series of auctions that only saw real signs of stability at last night’s contemporary art evening sale at Sotheby’s.
Picasso’s La Carafe (Bouteille et verre), 1911–12, was the top lot of the night, with a $10.5 million price tag, followed by Cézanne’s circa 1885 Pommes sur un linge at $9.1 million and Matisse’s Nu a la serviette blanche (circa 1901–3), which more than doubled its high estimate of $4.5 million, going for $9.1 million.
There was also a new record set for the Frenchman Jean Hélion, as competitive bidding brought his Abstraction (1935), which had a high estimate of only $800,000, to a fairly shocking $3.4 million, demolishing his previous record by some $2.7 million.
In the press conference following the sale, Christie’s president Jussi Pylkkänen emphasized his house’s ability to cherry-pick its offerings from the world’s art troves—whether coaxing Laura Mattioli to entrust them with her family’s Modigliani, which sold for $170.4 million on Monday night, or having works from the estate of Arthur and Anita Kahn pop up in both the postwar and Impressionist sales.
“There was a question as to what the sales percentages were going to look like,” Pylkkänen admitted, “but when the objects come from collections, they fare incredibly well. They’re associated with collectors who pick and choose, and that captures the imagination of the collectors who view the market in an intellectual way.”
(This may have been a not-so-veiled dig at archrival Sotheby’s, which kicked off the auction week with a sale wholly devoted to A. Alfred Taubman, its former owner, who left the company when he entered prison. The tastes and buying habits of the Midwestern shopping-mall heir were called into question when the heavily guaranteed sale misfired.)
An auction with 59 lots that arrives after six sales in the previous eight nights will almost inevitably encounter buyer fatigue, but bidding was, at least, strong out of the gate. The sale opened with a Matisse work on paper that had interest from bidders all over the room, and auctioneer Andreas Rumbler had to parse through the flying hands to track the timing of paddle raises. It eventually came down to Pylkkänen and specialist Conor Jordan fighting for their people over the phone, but by that point the competition had pushed the price way up, and the piece sold for $3.25 million including fees, more than three times its high estimate.
The first of the guaranteed lots, Marc Chagall’s L’air bleu (1937), went for $6.9 million, just over a low estimate of $6 million, and the next guaranteed lot, Magritte’s La grande maree (1946), went for $1.4 million, also just a tad over its low estimate, which was $1.2 million. It wasn’t quite halfway through the sale, but people were beginning to leave, making an already sparsely populated salesroom—Christie’s had removed about a third of the chairs since the postwar and contemporary evening sale on Tuesday—look even more empty. Perhaps half the seats were full by the 30th lot, and actress Jemima Kirke, a star of the HBO series Girls, appeared to be napping on the shoulder of her husband, Michael Mosberg.
(The day before the sale, Christie’s had sent another last-minute round of invitations to journalists—an unusual move for the house—indicating that perhaps they were concerned about getting people to show up).
Pace was also a problem. At one point, during the sale of a Henry Moore that had reached $6.5 million, specialist Koji Inoue successfully stalled Rumbler, gavel-in-air, as he tried to bleed his client of another $100,000.
“Can you speed it up?” yelled the bidder in the front row who was competing with Inoue.
“He’s got a point,” Rumbler said.
Inoue went to $6.6 million, the in-house bidder went to $6.7 million, and that’s where it hammered, for a price of $7.7 million with premium.
But aside from some crankiness at the conclusion of this long and winding auction week, the sale ended with that stunning Hélion result and a few other lots that went above their high estimates. The reasonable price points, as opposed to the risky bloated estimates that flopped in some previous sales, made for a cheery mood after the last lot sold.
“I thought the sale was very, very healthy—the market was very healthy tonight,” said dealer Helly Nahmad who, with his brother Joe and father David, was among the more ubiquitous dealers and collectors at the sales this year. Tonight, they snapped up Léger’s Nature morte au buste (1924) for $1.2 million.
“We tried to bid on a few Picassos, but we were unsuccessful,” he added.
And as everyone filed out of the salesroom and down the stairs, awaiting them was the star lot of the week, Modigliani’s Nu Couché, the second-most-expensive work ever sold at auction, hanging beside the main staircase. They stared at it one last time, and went home.