Despite a new record for a work at auction by Auguste Rodin—L’Eternel Printemps (1901–3), which went for $20.4 million after competitive action from multiple bidders—Sotheby’s did not pull off an absolute victory at its Impressionist and modern evening sale in New York on Monday night. The $144.5 million total was far below the low estimate of $164.8 million, and a slew of unsold lots—there were 21 passes in total, out of 62 lots on offer—left the final sell-through rate at a low 66 percent.
The Rodin was a highlight in a sale with a few of them—there was also Maurice de Vlaminck’s Sous-Bois (1905), which went for $16.4 million, and Paul Signac’s Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez (1892), which went for $10.7 million—but it totaled less than half of what the corresponding sale made in May 2015 with around the same number of lots, and it came on the heels of another quarterly report in which Sotheby’s posted a loss.
“There were a few casualties tonight and that’s very much a reflection of the marketplace we’re in right now, which is selective,” said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s cohead worldwide of Impressionist and modern art. “What was encouraging tonight was the depth of the bidding.”
It also comes after a tumultuous few months for Sotheby’s, when a string of long-serving, high-profile leaders departed the firm and the acquisition of the advisory firm Art Agency, Partners to the tune of up to $85 million raised a few eyebrows around the art world.
(This was the first major sale since the firm’s principals—former Christie’s chairman Amy Cappellazzo and journalist-turned-advisor Allan Schwartzman—moved into the Sotheby’s offices and began to reshape the company’s structure, and both their presences were felt. Cappellazzo was barking into a phone on one of the risers, and Schwartzman was keeping a low-ish profile by standing with the Sotheby’s public relations directors, beside the press scrum.)
Sotheby’s anticipated the night’s selective bidding by crafting a sale attuned to a slightly cooling market, with no blockbuster lots that came close to the $50 million mark, and almost no reliance on guaranteed lots, a reversal from just a few years ago. There was just one guaranteed work in the sale, René Magritte’s Le Message a la terre (1926), and when it came up auctioneer Oliver Barker sold it quickly to a bidder on the phone with specialist Clarissa Post for just over the low estimate at $2.3 million. With low overhead, and not a single guaranteed lot flopping on the block, there’s a chance that this modest sale actually proved successful—even if a third of the night’s consignors failed to see their work find a new home.
“What we saw this evening was a very sophisticated marketplace operating very efficiently,” Sotheby’s Impressionist modern cohead Simon Shaw said after the sale. “When we were able to check all the boxes, we ignited some global competition.”
Things did light up at the start, with Barker ensuring that all the first few lots inched past the low estimates. The Signac came up at lot six, depicting an old version of Saint Tropez unrecognizable to the collectors present who summer there: zero megayachts, a lot of fishing dinghies. After some back-and-forth between cochairman worldwide of Impressionist modern art David Norman—who, it was announced earlier this year, will be leaving Sotheby’s after a 31-year career following the May sales—and a woman in the second row, Norman captured the work for his bidder on the phone.
A few lots later, there was a bit of a disruption when the hammer fell on Magritte’s Le Jockey perdu (1964) at $2 million, only to not have someone raise a paddle claiming victory. When a bid-spotter identified dealer David Benrimon as the buyer, he started fidgeting, and got up to speak with Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith about what appeared to be a mix-up regarding who made the final bid. Soon Benrimon was coming over to the press den, saying, “This is crazy! They have to reopen the bidding! Who saw! Who’s in charge!”
(They did reopen the bidding, after which another bidder went higher and settled the matter. After the sale, a smiling Benrimon said, “We worked it out.”)
The de Vlaminck went to the woman who was the underbidder on the Signac—after another protracted battle with Norman—and the Rodin opened to a flurry of bidders before hammering at $18 million to make it $20.4 million with the premium. Then another star lot—Andre Derain’s Les Voiles Rouge—came to the block, but stalled at $12.5 million, well below its $15 million low estimate. Barker hung on to the figure, repeating “twelve-point-five-million” in different intonations as he scanned the room, and after almost a full two minutes, he proclaimed it a pass.
People began to trickle out of the saleroom after the Derain flopped, but those who left missed some successes: before the sale was over, two Monets soared past their low estimates, to $9.4 million and $6.9 million, respectively, a Bonnard went for well over its estimate, to $4.7 million, and a Renoir inched past its low estimate to sell for $4.3 million.
And with nearly all the big lots sold, the takeaway among some observers was that the auction was itself a kind of success—at least among dealers and specialists, people who have a vested interest in keeping market spirits bright.
“People are a little tentative, but the great stuff sold really great and the other stuff—well, a lot of the other stuff sold too,” said collector and dealer David Mugrabi, who didn’t seem to be bidding much himself at the sale. “It was fairly typical, really.”
The Nahmad family of art dealers bid $7.8 million when Picasso’s Buste d’homme laure (1969) came on the block, but no other bidders took up the challenge, and the painting went unsold. Still, Helly Nahmad said the sale was not a disappointment.
“The Rodin, for instance, wouldn’t have sold like that in any other market but this one,” he said. “And all the big lots did very well.”
The post-sale press conference started late.
“Sorry we were slightly late starting,” Shaw said, grinning, “because offers were already flooding in for the works that didn’t sell.”
The May sales in New York continue with the postwar and contemporary evening sale at Christie’s Tuesday night.